UF softball No. 2 in preseason poll

After coming in second in the national polls at the end of last year, the Florida Gators softball team will begin the 2012 season right where it left off. The USA Today/NFCA Division 1 Top 25 poll was released on Tuesday with the Gators holding down the No. 2 spot. How will the Gators stack up against the other top teams in the nation? Let’s take a look at college softball’s Top 5 teams:

1. Arizona State

2. Florida

3. Alabama

4. California

5. Oklahoma

(1) Arizona State-This is the sixth consecutive season the Arizona State Sun Devils started off No. 1. The Sun Devils won two Women’s College World Series championships in four years. Most recently, they swept away the Gators in the 2011 WCWS finale in straight games winning 14-4 and 7-2. The Sun Devils will have big cleats to fill this season with the loss of eight seniors to graduation – three of which are catcher Kaylyn Castillo, first-baseman Mandy Urfer and third-baseman Krista Donnenwirth. Although the Sun Devils will feel the absence of these key players, several returners are ready to pick up the slack. Senior shortstop Katelyn Boyd was among the top-3 finalists for the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year award, which is considered the most prestigious honor in college softball. Also, sophomore pitcher Dallas Escobedo had a terrific rookie season with the Sun Devils last year. Escobedo helped her team win the WCWS and received PAC-10 Pitcher of the Week honors twice.

(2) Florida- The No. 2 Florida Gators had a stellar 2011 season. Last year was one of the best seasons in the history of the University of Florida’s softball program. The 2011 senior class only saw 33 losses in its four years playing for the Gators. One player who will be noticeably absent is Kelsey Bruder. The newly graduated Gator player wowed her coaches and teammates with her intensity and leadership qualities. Bruder was honored with the NCAA Top VIII Award, which recognizes eight student-athletes all over the country. To put this into perspective, the last UF athlete to win this award was Tim Tebow. Although this is a big loss for the Gators, the returners are ready to step up to the plate. Senior center fielder Michelle Moultrie will be a must watch player this season. Moultrie was awarded 2011 WCWS Co-Most Outstanding Player and played on the 2011 and 2012 USA Softball Women’s National Team.

(3) Alabama-The Alabama Crimson Tide had its best finish at the 2011 WCWS in program history. The Crimson Tide ended its season in the No. 3 spot after getting swept by the Gators in two consecutive games. Bama’s biggest loss came at the end of the season when star pitcher Kelsi Dunne graduated.  Dunne was named SEC pitcher of the year as a junior, then picked up the honors again as a senior and was among the top-10 finalists for USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year. Although Dunne is going to be hard to replace, there are several highly awarded players returning for the Crimson Tide. Among the returners is junior Kayla Braud. She was beside Dunne in the top-10 finalists for Player of the Year and was named to the All-SEC first-team for two consecutive seasons.

(4) California- The California Golden Bears ended the 2011 season ranked No. 5, but jumped up a seed to No. 4 in the preseason USA Today/NFCA Division 1 polls. The Golden Bears have several players returning to the field for the 2012 season. Despite an injury that left her sidelined most of the 2011 season, senior Valerie Arioto played on the 2011 USA Softball Women’s National Team and is expected to be a major contributor in the upcoming season. Junior pitcher Jolene Henderson was awarded 2011 PAC-10 Pitcher of the Year and had an astounding 18 shutouts, two one-hitters, two no-hitters, and one perfect game. Cal hopes to see great things from their lower-classmen as well. Newcomer Cheyenne Cordes was a member of the USA Softball Junior Women’s National Team and was named the team’s Athlete of the Year.

(5)Oklahoma- Last year the Oklahoma Sooners advanced to the NCAA WCWS for the first time since 2004. This year, the Sooners are hoping to revisit the tournament with the help of the returning players. Junior Keilani Ricketts has already racked up some great achievements in her short two years with the Sooners. Ricketts was among the top-25 in the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year in 2010 and 2011 and was named to the 2011 NFCA All-America first team. Junior Brianna Turang played a large part in the Sooners offense game. Turang led the team with a .353 batting average.

The 2012 college softball season is less than three weeks away. The Gators will start their season in Tampa at the USF-Fairfield Inn and Suites Tampa North Tournament on Feb. 10 against Long Island. Later that week, the Gators will open their home slate on Feb. 15 against Jacksonville.

Gator Country reporter Darby Underwood can be reached at darbyu9@hotmail.com. You can also follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/DarbyUnderwood.