Hannah Adams

What were once commanding voices of leadership in the locker room, bullpen and dugout have now vacated Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium. The echoes of all-time athletes like Kelly Barnhill, Amanda Lorenz and Alex Voss interfere with loud whispers of doubt from the rest of college softball, generating feedback in Gainesville.

But, 10-year-old Hartley Georges — Florida softball’s adopted teammate — muffles the white noise. Last season was Hartley’s first with the Gators. She and Lorenz formed a special bond, never too far apart in the dugout, both sporting No. 18.

This season, just as they did before, the Gators will look to her for strength. She motivates Florida’s squad and reminds them that there’s more to life than wins and losses. Senior catcher Jordan Roberts said that she is “literally sunshine” in the dugout. At the preseason banquet, the Georges surprised the Gators, announcing that Hartley’s most recent MRI came back clear — no evidence of disease.

“Chills amongst our whole team, I’m sure,” senior Jade Caraway said about the Georges’ news. “Us seniors, I know for a fact, were looking at each other trying to hold it together...Our eyes were filled with tears.”

More than any title, more than any accolade, more than dispelling any preseason hesitations, that is what they’re playing for. She is what they’re playing for.

Florida’s 2020 campaign begins tonight in Tampa, where the No. 7-ranked Gators will face the Illinois State Redbirds in their seventh-consecutive USF-Rawlings Invitational.

The weekend will kick off the 56-game regular season with five games, including Florida’s first matchup with a ranked opponent in No. 17 Michigan. While the Gators have won the last five meetings versus the Wolverines, coach Tim Walton acknowledges the breadth of talent in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“It’s called fast pitch for a reason, and if you pitch really, really well, you’re going to win a lot of games,” Walton said. “I think Michigan really has a very good pitching staff. They returned a couple of really good pitchers.”

Independent of the turnover the Gators have seen from last season, they are slated for a tough non-conference schedule. Florida will travel to Palm Springs, California, for the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic at the end of the month to battle No. 5 Arizona, No. 14 Northwestern, No. 22 Arizona State and No. 4 UCLA all in one weekend.

The Gators will host their first SEC series of the season the first weekend of March against No. 23 Auburn at home. No. 21 Ole Miss, Missouri and No. 16 Georgia will each play a three-game series in Gainesville.

Florida also has a home-and-home with No. 9 Florida State, duking it out in Gainesville on March 11 and in Tallahassee on April 22.

The SEC Tournament is May 6-9 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The Gators and the Crimson Tide are the only two SEC teams ranked in the top 10 this preseason. Florida seeks its third SEC tournament title in a row — sixth in program history —while reigning regular-season SEC champion Alabama aims to dethrone the Gators.

The NCAA Tournament begins with Regionals from May 14-17 and the Super Regional from May 21-24.

Last year, the Crimson Tide drowned the Gators with a 15-3 win in its second game of the Women’s College World Series. This year, the WCWS will be held in Oklahoma City, from May 28-June 3.

To make it that far into the postseason, Florida will have to take things day by day, starting this weekend.

“We’re just trying to take the weekend head on, one game at a time, one pitch at a time,” Roberts said.

Senior outfielder Jaime Hoover echoed her teammate’s sentiments.

“Now, we have to work on what we’re going to achieve as a team now and not really think about last year,” Hoover said. “We have a whole new beast in front of us now.”

Follow Payton Titus on Twitter @petitus25. Contact her at [email protected].

Payton Titus is a sports writer covering softball this season. She has also written for Swimming World Magazine, Inside the Gators and Chomp Talk.