Friday night will bring about an odd feeling for Tim Walton when he turns in the Florida Gators softball lineup card for their first game in Tampa, Florida.
For the time in four years Walton isn’t able to pencil in Lauren Haeger’s name or Bailey Castro’s name in that line-up. Not only will it be tough for Walton, but also it will force other players to step and produce what those two ladies did for the Gators the last four years.
Haeger and Castro were the home run hitters, the big hitters for this team and Walton says it will take multiple people to fill the 36 home run void they left behind.
“We’re going to have a team effort for sure,” said Walton. “I just kind of got bummed out not having Bailey Castro or Lauren Haeger here. It’s going to be tough, it’s going to be really tough.”
As Walton says it will be very tough to fill the gap those ladies left behind, but the Gators still return 40 home runs from a year ago. The majority of those 40 home runs came from Taylore Fuller, but sophomore Kayli Kvistad, Kirsti Merritt and freshman Amanda Lorenz all have that power to hit the ball out of the park.
For Florida and Walton, the concern isn’t just who will hit the home runs, but who will be that RBI producer that Haeger was. Fear not though, as Walton says the Gators have the ladies to do the job.
“I’m going to say that we’re going to lean on Taylore Fuller and Kayli Kvistad to be our RBI getters. With Kelsey Stewart, Kirsti Merritt and Amanda Lorenz who is a freshman they’re going to get plenty of RBI chances because of how good those players are at getting on base,” he said. “I think for us to be successful we are going to have Kayli Kvistad, Janelle Wheaton and Taylore Fuller come through and continue their trend of getting RBI’s.”
Walton has the pieces to put together a lineup that is dynamite like last year, but he won’t have to think much about his first two hitters.
Kelsey Stewart and Kirsti Merritt are one of, if not the best 1-2 combos in the country, and last year they hit .435 and .325 respectively, while having an on base percentage of .487 and .498 respectively. Those two girls combined for 49 stolen bases last year at the top of the order, but the question now becomes who hits after them?
Last year it was pretty easy to pencil in Haeger in three hole, because of her RBI and home run ability, but who is that three hole hitter this year? It could be any of Janelle Wheaton, Taylore Fuller or maybe even freshman Amanda Lorenz.
For Walton, he isn’t stressing about who he will put together his line-up right now because he knows he has time to play around with it.
“The first month is really that [trial and error], it’s about roster management, trying to figure out what pieces work,” said Walton. “Trying to figure out which pieces work in situations. First game for example, figuring out how I like the batting order, figuring out how each one plays off each other.”
“Finding out what one hitter does, does the next hitter give off the exact same dimensions,” said Walton. “Do you go with a left handed, right-handed, left-handed order? I think we have the speed to do that but it’s trail by error to figure out who can do it.”
I didn’t mention Kayli Kvistad for the number three-hole hitter because Walton seems to like her further down in the order. That may be due to the fact that Kvistad struggled some during her freshman campaign with putting the ball in play, or it could mean Walton likes her big power bat in the cleanup hole.
“She can probably bat anywhere from 4,5,6 to 7 range,” said Walton. “She’s really, since the middle to end of last season, she has started to become more consistent. I say she has a more of ferocious swing, she gives us that ability to go yard with any swing. That’s something you need to have in your lineup for sure.”
That takes care of the offense for Walton, but where will he play Kvistad at is the next question. To begin the year last year Kvistad played some first base but mainly just came off of the bench. Good news for Walton is that he now has the designate hitter spot opened up and that’s where Kvistad could play when she’s not at first base.
“As of right I see her just DH’ing for us,” said Walton. “ When I say that, I played her at the college World Series at first base so there is role there but what Janelle Wheaton and Taylor Schwarz bring to us defensively is good. Right now with how deep we are at first base I think we’re going to stick here at DH.”
That’s music to the ears of senior Taylor Schwarz who said, “it feel good to have that role back.”
The last big question mark heading to the season is who will fill the void at shortstop left behind by Katie Medina, who was considered of the best in the country.
Last spring when Medina would come out of the game, Walton would shift Stewart to short and Nicole DeWitt to second, but that isn’t penciled in for sure yet.
Walton loves having Stewart at second base, but right now freshman Alex Vass isn’t quite ready to play at shortstop, as she continued to get use to the college game.
For Walton and the Gators, it seems like Stewart starting out at shortstop is the answer and that’s something Walton is ok with.
“I don’t know how it’s going to,” said Walton. “ If I have to write Kelsey Stewart’s name in at shortstop, I’m not going to lose a lot of sleep. I’ll be honest with you she’s a great player and a great competitor. Ideally I would like to keep the, if not the best second basemen in the country then one of the best second basemen in the country at second base. But I think with Nicole playing second and Kelsey playing short to start the season, I’m comfortable, I’m confident in that.”
“I think we’re losing a little bit in both positions based upon Katie Medina and Kelsey Stewart. I don’t know that we’re losing a lot with what we have right now though. Alex Vass could play both positions as a freshman but right now we’re just trying to work with confidence and consistency”
No matter how Walton writes his line-up up on Friday, things can and likely will change as the season goes on. There will be a lot of young faces trying to fill a few voids left behind and that’s something Walton will watch closely.
The biggest thing that Walton and his staff will watch is how the young players react to the bright lights of game time, as games are much different than practice. For some players games bring out the best in them, while others get nervous.
“We have some players who have been successful during scrimmages; we have some players that are more gamers,” said Walton. “They just seem to have more; they just seem to do more when we are playing outside opponents. Some kids can’t do the exact opponent, their heart beat changes, and they can’t maintain the same kind of consistency.”