Jordan Matthews

Jordan Matthews

Five games. Three days. One reinvented team.

Florida’s 2020 campaign kicks off Friday in Tampa with the USF-Rawlings Invitational, where the Gators will face Illinois State, Fresno State, No. 17 Michigan, Georgia State and USF.

The No. 7 Gators’ seventh-consecutive appearance in the USF Opening Weekend Invitational will provide an early indication of the state of this year’s squad. After uncharacteristically being tabbed fifth in the SEC Preseason Coaches’ Poll (last year, it was picked to win the SEC), Florida has plenty to prove when it takes the field to play the Wolverines, who have great depth and experience in the circle and two players on the 2020 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year watchlist (junior pitcher Meghan Beaubien and sophomore outfielder Lexie Blair).

Instead of being discouraged by preseason standings, senior outfielder Jade Caraway says Florida is fueled by outsiders’ doubts.

“I don’t think that’s something we’re really worried about,” Caraway said. “Honestly, it’s an underdog mentality, and it’s just honestly an advantage at this point, because we’re just going to go out and surprise people, so I’m excited about that.”

Nonetheless, this weekend will be a crucial opportunity for the Gators to start the season off on a high note and carry that momentum into a challenging non-conference slate. Here are a couple of things Florida will aim to accomplish in South Florida outside of the wins and losses column:

Building the pitching staff’s confidence

With the graduation of All-American pitcher Kelly Barnhill, there is an opening on the mound for the Gators. Coach Tim Walton said he is confident in the members of his pitching staff, however — all five of them. With still no frontrunner in sight, Walton wants everyone prepared to pitch at any moment and see how his multifaceted group of pitchers fares against outside competition.

“Most of the time you see five pitchers, it’s not usually a game that the Gators are going to win,” Walton said. “I think it’s going to be a little bit different this year, with each one of them having a little bit of a different out pitch.”

Senior catcher Jordan Roberts hopes this weekend will allow the young staff to build confidence that will carry over through the remainder of the season. After all, filling the shoes of 10 straight having an All-American pitcher on the roster can be a daunting task.

“We do have a strong (pitching) staff, and I’m really excited for them, and I have so much confidence in them,” Roberts said. “I just want to see them kind of work together and just compete as one and know that they have their entire team behind them.”

As long as the Gators can keep their ERA under two, Walton feels his team will be able to prolong its postseason campaign, starting with this weekend.

Establishing an inclusive team identity

In recent years, Florida has been marked as Barnhill’s and Amanda Lorenz’s team. The two served as the primary faces of Gator softball for years. With Barnhill starting her Softball Australia career and Lorenz in the dugout as a student assistant coach, it is time for new athletes to rise up and assume this role.

Roberts’ goal for this team is a more inclusive identity where everyone as a collective serves as “the face” of the SEC’s historically most dominant softball school.

“I think we have a lot of players that are going to surprise people that you haven’t seen before,” Roberts said. “And I want (the identity) to be just us all together as one...everyone brings something valuable to the team...not so much individual people.”

This weekend symbolizes a fresh start for the Gators, where they can craft a new image for themselves as a program.

Follow Payton on Twitter @petitus25 and 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.