The Florida Gators softball team in 2015 was an all-around good team, but when you look at the pitching that ranked fourth in the NCAA with a 1.63 ERA last year, you can tell what led the Gators to the Promised Land.
Heading into the 2016 season the Gators are missing their ace, as Lauren Haeger has graduated and takes with her a 1.23 ERA that was good enough for fifth in the NCAA.
Fear not Florida fans, as Tim Walton and pitching coach Jennifer Rocha still have a stacked staff that welcomes in No.1 prospect Kelly Barnhill to the team.
Barnhill, who set the Georgia state record for single season strikeouts last year with 534, joins Delanie Gourley and Aleshia Ocasio in the circle this season for the Gators.
Gourley posted a 10-2 record last year and is now the seasoned veteran on the staff, but she knows it will take a team effort this spring.
“I’m excited for my role. When I came in Hannah [Rodgers] was a senior and I looked up to her and then last year I looked up to Lauren [Haeger],” Gourley said. “This year it’s not going to be all me, Aleshia, Kelly and I are going to have to work together and I’m just really excited. It’s going to be fun.”
Despite the leadership of Gourley, she looks to be a reliever early in the season, a lot like she was last season.
That brings the question of who will be starting on Friday night and who will be the game two starter this season.
As we’ve grown accustomed to under Walton, he likes to throw his freshmen pitchers out there early on to test their abilities. This way he can set his staff up correctly for conference play.
“I think that’s what you’re always looking forward, that combination. I’m going into the season with zero expectations of how we’re going to set up that lineup for SEC play,” said Walton. “Right now the first month of the season we’re just going to look at it from weekend to weekend. Maybe look at it at Friday and Saturday and make our adjustments on Sunday depending on what happens the first two days. Definitely have to get Kelly acclimated to home and road games against great competition.”
Both of those ladies have the game to be really good, but for Walton, he’s continuing to work with both ladies to get them better.
The biggest thing that Walton is working with Ocasio on is her consistency in the circle, something that caused her problems last season.
Ocasio, who’s 2.58 ERA is very respectful for a freshman, could have been much better had she been able to work consistently through a 7-inning game.
“Aleshia was really good on Saturday when we scrimmaged and trying to get her to be a little more consistent,” said Walton. “When I say consistent, I mean through a seven-inning game. She has times when she has been dominant and there have been times where she has lost it a little bit. Whether that is to do with the opponent or something we can do as a coaching staff to help her get through the lineup.”
Walton and Rocha believe that’s something they can control, but with Barnhill they’re dealing with a young lady that has had a lot of success pre-college.
As mentioned before, Barnhill was the No. 1 ranked player in the country last season, and with that comes a ton of pressure to live up to expectations. The good news for Walton and Rocha is that they’ve dealt with these expectations before and they have a plan for Barnhill.
“She comes in with a lot of success and we’re going to have to manage that a little bit because there’s to be some failing moments,” Walton said. “I don’t think it’s going to be any different than we had to manage with the Stephanie Brombacher’s, the Delanie Gourley’s or Aleshia Ocasio’s. She’s been such a dominant force in the circle for so long and she was highly sought after, she’s had success with the national team and the junior national team.
“So for us it’s just managing the expectations and to be honest with you I’ve learned a lot from over hyping a freshman, she’s got all of the tools that are needed to be success. It’s just going to be up to us and to Kelly to keep her grounded, keep her working and to just keep her hungry for success because she has a ton of potential. She’s really a good kid.”
The one thing that you will notice when Barnhill gets in the circle is that she’s ready to throw a “K” on the board, from Walton has said.
“She’s got a lot of tools, just the velocity, the movement, the competitiveness, the want of the ball every game,” said Walton. “She has all of those things, she’s different, she’s different than we’ve had before just with the number of strikeouts she comes in with as an athlete.”
Barnhill and Ocasio both will have Walton and Rocha by their side, but Gourley is also ready to be that leader for them as well.
“I’m kind of quiet so I kind of like to lead by what I do,” said Gourley. “It’s been fun having Kelly come in. I have been working with her and Aleshia. [Kelly] she’s really excited to get her first year going and we’re really excited to get things going. I’m going to be there for them step by step.”