2021 was bittersweet for the Florida Gators softball team.
Despite boasting a 45-11 record and winning an SEC record ninth regular-season championship, the Gators suffered shocking losses that stopped them from winning more titles.
Top-seeded Florida beat Mississippi State and Missouri in consecutive days before losing 4-0 to three-seed Alabama in the SEC Tournament Championship game May 15.
Two weeks later, Florida was stunningly shut out in back-to-back games against the Georgia Bulldogs in the NCAA Super Regional. The 4-0 and 6-0 losses at the Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium took the team and Gator Nation by surprise given that the Bulldogs finished 11th in the SEC regular season with a 7-17 record.
Florida head coach Tim Walton was a guest on the softball podcast In the Circle on Jan. 20. He offered thoughts on his team’s end to 2021.
“When I recruit players, it’s getting to the College World Series. It’s being on that stage and having a chance to compete for a national championship,” Walton said. “And unfortunately, we didn’t have enough left in the tank.”
This season, however, the Gators’ dormant bats are showing more promise.
Florida dominated its 10-inning fall exhibitions, outscoring Florida State 17-4, South Florida 20-2, Saint Leo 13-1, North Florida 7-3, Jacksonville 16-2, Central Florida 7-2 and NJCAA Champions Florida Southwestern 21-3.
In 70 innings — the equivalent of seven games — the Gators scored 101 runs, more than a third of their 284 scored during the 2021 season.
Most of Florida’s offensive production will fall on a trio of seasoned players.
Senior third-base Charla Echols led the team in home runs (15) and RBIs (55) last season. Fifth-year infielder Hannah Adams dominated, bringing in 52 runs and hitting a team-best 63 singles. Senior outfielder Cheyenne Lindsey rounds out the veteran bunch. She led Florida with 15 extra-base hits in 2021.
Skylar Wallace, a transfer infielder from Alabama, is also expected to add punch to the UF offense. In 22 games with the Crimson Tide in 2020, she posted 27 runs, 18 RBIs and five doubles. Wallace redshirted last season due to SEC intra-conference transfer rules, which forced players to sit out after transferring inside the conference.
The Gators’ dominant pitching staff also returns their top two aces.
Pitchers Natalie Lugo and Elizabeth Hightower will lead the charge from the circle. They will be joined by graduate student Marissa Mesiemore — who transferred from Florida Gulf Coast.
Last season, Hightower and Lugo collected 17 wins each and had ERAs of 1.61 and 1.74, respectively. Mesiemore finished with 16 wins and a 3.54 ERA in 2021 with the Eagles.
The Gators also added five freshmen to their roster: outfielder Kendra Falby, infielder Reagan Walsh, pitcher Lexie Delbrey and catchers Sam Roe and Cali Decker.
Florida ranks No. 2 in the SEC preseason poll with three first-place votes. They trail reigning champion Alabama, which received seven. Nationally, the Gators sit at No. 5, according to ESPN.com/USA Softball’s rankings.
Florida kicks off its season participating in the USF Tournament. Illinois State is the first team on tap Friday at 5:30 p.m. The Gators’ first home game will be Feb. 16 against the Jacksonville Dolphins.
Jose Tovar is a fourth-year journalism student at the University of Florida specializing in sports and media. He has covered softball and soccer as a beat writer and aspires to work in the sports media industry.