The 2016 Sunshine State Conference preseason softball poll has been announced and the Saint Leo University Lions have been voted the early favorite, with the defending champion University of Tampa Spartans picked second. Florida Southern was eighth in the preseason poll, with voting conducted by the league's nine head coaches. (Coaches were not allowed to rank their own teams.) Eight points were awarded for a first-place vote, seven for a second-place, down to one point for eighth place. Provisional members Palm Beach Atlantic and Embry-Riddle were not eligible.
Florida Southern has been the SSC's most successful program since softball was adopted as a league sport during the 1981-82 academic year. Over the last 34 years, the Moccasins have won 24 SSC Championships, the most of any team in any conference at the Division II level. More recently, the SSC has seen a more balanced field, with seven of its nine active members qualifying for the NCAA Tournament at least once since 2010, in addition to Palm Beach Atlantic.
Last year saw Tampa win its fourth SSC title, while Rollins and Florida Tech each joined the Spartans in the NCAA Tournament. Florida Tech went on to finish as the South Region runner-up, despite a fifth-place finish in the league standings. As a further example of the depth of the SSC in softball, three other schools won at least 30 games, with this year's preseason favorite, Saint Leo, going 39-12 overall and 15-9 in conference play, but finishing one game out of first.
Saint Leo received five first-place votes in the preseason poll, and defending champion Tampa received three. That allowed the Lions to out-score the Spartans 59-55 and grab the top position. Barry, which actually tied Tampa with a 16-8 league mark last season but did not receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament, has been picked to finish third and had 50 points in the poll.
The middle third featured Rollins (48 points), Florida Tech (38) and Eckerd (25), with Rollins receiving the remaining first-place vote. Following that group were Lynn (19), Florida Southern (18) and Nova Southeastern (12). The complete SSC poll can be found here.
The Moccasins will have a vastly different look this year with 12 new players on the roster. That number breaks down to six junior college transfers, five freshmen and one 4-year transfer. Seniors Jordan Alexander and Maggie Roberts, and sophomore Ashlyn Worcester are the only returning position starters, though all three of last year's starting pitchers, senior Taylor Bowen, and juniors Brandi Jones and Hannah Loyer, return. (Senior All-SSC second baseman Leah Pemberton is expected to redshirt this season.)
Pemberton and Alexander were Florida Southern's top run producers last year with 31 and 19 RBI respectively. Pemberton hit .382 with 11 doubles, five home runs and a .426 on-base percentage, and Alexander had a .306 batting average, four doubles, two home runs, and a team-high 17 walks that gave her a .374 OBP.
Jones led the Mocs in every pitching category, putting together a 13-15 record with one save and a 1.99 ERA that ranked sixth in the SSC behind three pitchers from Saint Leo, one from Tampa and one from Rollins. She also finished fourth in the league with 179 strikeouts in 193.0 innings.
Florida Southern will open the 2016 season on Saturday, February 6 in Clearwater at the Eckerd College Invitational with games against Colorado Christian and Ursuline (OH).