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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Softball season starts with five weekend games

UF kicks off its season this weekend with two things the program has never seen before - a No.13 preseason ranking and two returning National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-Americans.

Second-team NFCA All-American pitcher Stacey Nelson and third-team NFCA All-American second baseman Kim Waleszonia, who will move to center field this year, anchor a Gators squad that enters the 2008 season with its highest preseason ranking ever.

"We definitely set a higher standard, and we're looking to go further this year," Nelson said.

Waleszonia, the first position player in UF history to earn All-American honors, was quick to point out that individual accolades mean nothing without team success.

"I worked hard for it, but I wasn't working for that," she said. "Those things don't matter in the end, because it's a team sport."

This year, the Gators will try to improve upon coming within one game of a College World Series berth. Coach Tim Walton, who has had the team playing intrasquad scrimmages for the past week, made it known that the coaching staff is concerned with three major obstacles standing in the way.

"Getting them experience in adverse situations, building chemistry and playing time are all coaching things that I have to do a good job of," Walton said.

Balanced playing time might be especially hard to manage because UF expanded its roster to 20 players this spring, up from 16 a year ago.

Helping to focus the young team, which includes nine incoming freshmen, will be the Gators' lone senior, outfielder Mary Ratliff, who embraces the responsibility that comes with having the longest tenure on the roster.

"I kind of love it," Ratliff said. "They're all responsible. It's not like I have to baby-sit them or anything like that."

Ratliff didn't earn a starting spot until last season and proceeded to make the most of it by becoming one of UF's most reliable all-around players.

She finished the 2007 campaign fourth on the team in batting average (.280) and RBI (28) while posting a perfect fielding percentage.

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"Its just a different mindset. In a way, it's kind of easier to come to the field and know you're going to play," she said.

Along with Waleszonia and Ratliff, look for returning players Corrie Brooks, Francesca Enea, Alexandra Gardiner, Kristina Hilberth and Brooke Johnson to at least begin the season in starting roles.

However, as the freshmen become more comfortable with what is expected of them as college athletes, expect a lot of different lineups from Walton, who believes the Gators' depth, athleticism and hard-working attitudes will be their biggest strengths.

Walton will get to make the first evaluation of his youthful team this weekend, when the Gators open up the season in Tampa at the USF-Wilson Tournament.

"We're talented. We're skilled," Walton said. "But one thing we don't have, we don't have the gamers."

UF will play doubleheaders on both Friday and Saturday and then wrap up the trip with a game on Sunday against host USF.

An early-season tournament will be a good way for the newcomers to gain valuable experience, but the team's leader in the circle isn't concerned about the large freshmen class.

"They've caught on to the system," Nelson said. "They've been responsive and easy to work with. They're great."

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