Last year, the Gators turned to their underclassmen to fill pivotal roles. This year could prove to be similar.

Florida’s softball team is opening its season today at 4:45 p.m. against Illinois State, the first matchup of a five-game weekend at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

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While UF has five upperclassmen on the preseason All-SEC Team, it is also eager to showcase its depth and younger players in these opening matchups.

“We have different players who can do a lot of different things,” senior Aleshia Ocasio said. “I’m really excited to see how it’s going to piece together."

The Gators are expected to be strong defensively this spring, despite starting a redshirt sophomore at shortstop and a freshman at second base.

In her debut season, Sophia Reynoso brought desperately needed stability at shortstop. Reynoso started all 68 games for Florida and recorded a .957 fielding percentage.

Hannah Adams will attempt to bring a similar impact this season. The freshman’s defensive prowess has been good enough so far to get the nod from coach Tim Walton at second, bumping senior Nicole DeWitt over to third base.

Junior Kelly Barnhill will see a bulk of the playing time on the mound this season along with Ocasio. Behind the pair of upperclassmen are two promising young pitchers in sophomore Katie Chronister and freshman Natalie Lugo.

Chronister made the decision this offseason to focus exclusively on pitching and pinch running instead of playing first base.

“She has the ability to get a lot of ground balls,” Walton said. “She changes speeds. She throws down. She’s left-handed. I think last year was not an indication of where she could be.”

Lugo joins Chronister in the bullpen. The summer before coming to UF, Lugo dominated at the World Baseball Softball Confederation Junior Women’s World Championship. She registered a 0.42 ERA with three wins, beating Japan in the championship game.

With plenty of depth at the plate, Florida will retain its status from last season as one of the better offenses in the SEC.

Behind players like junior Amanda Lorenz, who ranks first in school history in career batting average (.395), Florida has added freshman sluggers Haven Sampson and Josie Page.  

Sampson hit .371 for her high school career with a .436 on-base percentage, while Page broke school records in career home runs and single-season home runs at Washington County High School in Chatom, Alabama. She also led Washington County to the program’s first two regional playoff berths.

“We’re just excited to get the new people out there in the Orange and Blue,” Walton said. “(They) get to share in the passion with all of the returning players we have.”

Follow Mark Stine on Twitter @mstinejr and contact him at mstine@alligator.org.