1993 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS
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Florida Southern Softball Team Set to Begin 2016 Season This Weekend in Clearwater

Florida Southern Softball Team Set to Begin 2016 Season This Weekend in Clearwater

There's no doubt about it, 2015 was a tough year for the Florida Southern softball team no matter how it was measured, and the Moccasins are eager for a new season to begin. Dwelling on the past might seem counterproductive, but the players and coaches also see it as an opportunity to embrace another challenge – and they really haven't been shy about their objectives for 2016. For a program that's already won an NCAA Division II record 24 conference championships, the goal of winning #25 seems perfectly normal, regardless of where they finished last year, or where the voters think they'll finish this year.

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What made last year so difficult to swallow was the way many of the games went down. The Moccasins lost nine games in which their opponent scored the go-ahead run in the final inning, and in six of those they had the lead in the seventh. The Mocs also had eight other losses by either one or two runs, so they know a very good season was within their grasp, and it remains that way in 2016. That's why they haven't backed down from the challenge laid in front of them: to climb all the way back to the top in a way that no SSC softball team has ever done before.

In order for the Moccasins to accomplish that, they'll need some major contributions from a 12-member recruiting class that represents over half the roster. The Mocs lost five position starters to graduation and another to injury, which means at least six spots in the batting order need to be filled. The pitching staff returns virtually intact, but there are new faces even there. It all adds up to what head coach Chris Bellotto calls one of the deepest teams she's had in her 35 years at Florida Southern, and with a schedule that features 29 games against teams with a .600 winning percentage or higher, that depth will be tested on a regular basis.

Though they make up the smallest class on the roster, the seniors will still be looked to for leadership on and off the field. With All-SSC second baseman Leah Pemberton slated to redshirt this year, it leaves the Moccasins with only three upperclassmen, and all of them are returning starters. Jordan Alexander is the only 4-year senior among them, while first baseman Maggie Roberts and pitcher Taylor Bowen are back for their second season on the team. Bellotto is counting on all three to raise the level of their game as they wrap up their college careers.

Bellotto refers to Alexander as her "plug-and-play" member of the lineup. She can be plugged in almost anywhere and has made multiple starts at six different defensive positions in her career, including 44 as a catcher, 43 at third base, and 31 in centerfield. Watching Alexander develop as a hitter at the top of the batting order has been one of the biggest highlights of the last three years, and she's coming off a season that saw her hit .306 with four doubles, two home runs and 19 RBI. She also tied for the team lead with 17 walks. She'll again see time in centerfield and behind the plate, but her versatility means she could really show up at any position where she's needed.

Roberts is primed for a bounce-back season as she returns to more regular first base duties following an injury-plagued junior season. She was seldom out of the lineup in 2015, but was extremely limited at times and spent much of the season as the Mocs' designated player. When she did play defense, Roberts was flawless, and including her sophomore year at Polk State College, she's committed only three errors in almost 400 chances at first base during that time. With Roberts healthy again, the Mocs are looking forward to seeing her hit the way she did early in 2015 and throughout her junior college career when she posted a .460 average with 25 home runs and 127 RBI.

Bowen wasn't always healthy either, but was beginning to look more like her old self by the end of the season. In the Mocs' final two series against Rollins and Saint Leo, she threw a total of 11.0 innings and allowed just one earned run on seven hits. Tampa may have won the SSC, but it could be argued those two teams were every bit as good as the Spartans, and outings like that serve as a reminder of how good Bowen can be. Bellotto hopes that Bowen can use that type of finish, along with a return to good health, as a springboard to the type of season she had as a sophomore at the College of Central Florida when she won a team-high 20 games for the NJCAA Division I national runners-up.

While the senior class is the smallest this year for Florida Southern, the junior class is the largest with eight members, but only two of them are returning players from 2015. The rest are junior college transfers who all fill various needs, but the two veterans will be leaned on just as heavily as the seniors. One of them, Brandi Jones, is strictly a pitcher, but the other, Hannah Loyer, will have a chance to help the Moccasins with her arm and her bat.

Jones' won-loss record (13-15) belied how well she pitched all year long for the Moccasins, and she deserved far more than the 13 wins she got. She ranked among the SSC leaders in almost every pitching category, was sixth in ERA (1.99), fourth in strikeouts (179) and strikeouts per seven innings (6.49), and picked up the Mocs' biggest wins of the season, including two against South Region runner-up Florida Tech. The only other qualifying pitchers in the SSC to finish the year with ERA's under 2.00 combined to go 95-34; and all of the other top-10 pitchers had an average record of 19-8. That provides a better view of how good Jones has been, and it further establishes her as one of the league's best no matter what the record on the stat sheet says.

Loyer has had some impressive outings as a pitcher over the last two seasons and has won six games while striking out 89 batters in 99.0 innings. Where she really took off though was at the plate during the final month of 2015, when she posted a .375 batting average as a starting outfielder or designated player. That made Loyer the Mocs' leading hitter in April and one of the best in the SSC during that same time period. Her exact role will be determined by a number of factors throughout the season but she could be used again as either a pitcher, an outfielder or as the DP, and if she's not in the starting lineup, she would bring a fearsome bat off the bench.

The only other returning starter for the Moccasins is sophomore outfielder Ashlyn Worcester, who was one of only two players last year who started all 51 games. Worcester had a .362 on-base percentage the first month of the season covering 16 games, and Bellotto would like to see her re-gain that form to give the lineup a boost.

Three more sophomores are back in 2016 too, with Jordan Sheppard, Ann Scios and Andrea Faison all playing different roles for the Moccasins during their first season. Sheppard saw the most extensive playing time as the Mocs' primary pinch-runner, but all of them have the opportunity to expand on their previous duties. Sheppard is an outfielder and catcher, Scios plays first base, and Faison was a middle infielder who has now added third base to her list of positions.

Of course many of the position battles will involve the lengthy list of newcomers that include six junior college transfers, five freshmen and one 4-year transfer. With so many spots open, and the competition so fierce during the preseason, it's a good bet that many of the rookies will find their way into the starting lineup at some point.

Two of those are junior Sydney Koch and freshman Jessica Trana, who could pull double-duty as pitchers and infielders. Koch was a 2-year starter at Johnson County Community College in Kansas where she went 33-8 in the pitcher's circle with a 1.70 ERA. That included a 23-5 mark as a sophomore when she helped the Cavaliers finish third at the NJCAA Division II National Tournament. Even with pitching numbers such as those, however, Koch could be just as important to the Mocs' cause at second base where she's one of the replacements for Pemberton, who led the team last year in nearly every offensive category while hitting .382 with five home runs and 31 RBI. As a pitcher at Johnson County CC, Koch did not always get a chance to hit, but she did own a .312 batting average with 26 RBI as a sophomore. Bellotto describes her as the type of competitor who always wants the ball in her hand.

Trana comes to Florida Southern from South Plantation High School in south Florida as the 2015 Broward County Player-of-the-Year as a senior, and a 2-time Class 8A All-State selection. Trana brings a strong bat to the lineup after hitting over .500 in each of her final three seasons at South Plantation, and graduating as the Paladins' all-time leader in home runs (19) and RBI (118). Though she brings a lot of firepower as a first baseman or designated player, Trana has also looked good as a pitcher during the preseason and went 3-0 with a 1.57 ERA as a high school senior, striking out 25 batters and walking only five in 22.1 innings.

Two more corner infielders joining the Moccasins this year are junior college transfers Erica Morrissey and Katie Patterson who are battling for the third base job. Morrissey, who was also a catcher at Polk State College, was a career .368 hitter there with 22 doubles, eight home runs, and 66 RBI as a 2-time all-conference selection. Patterson is coming off a sophomore season at Florida State College-Jacksonville that saw her earn all-conference honors too while hitting .285 with 13 doubles, three homers and 31 RBI. Her 20 walks pushed her on-base percentage up to .381.

The middle infield has seen an influx of new talent too, which includes the aforementioned Koch, freshman Makayla Deuberry, sophomore Amber Presto and junior Beri Scott. Deuberry, who was an All-State selection last year for Hardee High School, has already shown exceptional range and a strong arm at shortstop. She hit .391 with a team-high 35 RBI as a senior at Hardee. Presto was the starting shortstop as a freshman at Ave Maria University in 2014 after earning All-State honors at Lakeland's McKeel Academy, and Scott comes to Florida Southern as a 2-time all-conference pick at Santa Fe College where she seemed to play her best softball in the postseason. Both transfer students could play either middle infield position, and when Koch is pitching, one of them will probably be in the lineup at second.

The arrival of four new outfielders has created some spirited competition there too, though Florida Southern still has one returning full-time starter (Worcester) and two others (Alexander and Loyer) who've seen significant outfield time in the past and could do so again depending on the situation. The coaching staff certainly has plenty of choices, some of which will be dictated by Loyer's pitching, and Alexander's usage at other positions.

Two of the new outfielders are junior college veterans Erin Klein and Dana Mackiewicz. Klein was a .300 hitter her sophomore year at St. John's River State College and a menace on the bases where she went 19-for-20 in steal attempts. Prior to that she was a 5A All-State selection at North Marion High School. Mackiewicz is another stolen base threat who hit .371 with a .468 on-base percentage in her final year at Pasco-Hernando State College while going 22-for-24 on the bases.

Freshmen Annemarie Tracey and Hannah Whisman are in the outfield mix too. Tracey was a 3-time all-conference and 4-time all-area selection at Hinsdale Central High School in Illinois, and Whisman was all-county and all-district for Barron Collier High School in southwest Florida, traditionally one of the best prep programs in the state. Both players also starred for highly successful travel ball teams.

Another freshman could end up behind the plate this year with Zierra Flodman arriving from Nebraska's Lincoln Southwest High School. She drove in a school record 128 runs during her prep career as a 2-time All-State selection and brings a dose of power to the batting order for the Moccasins. The plan is to use both Flodman and Alexander as catchers this year, but both players will likely be in the lineup together, with one of them in the outfield when the other is behind the plate.

With the roster set up the way it is, Bellotto believes just about everyone will have a chance to contribute at some point. The added depth this year also means every one of the 22 players will need to continue pushing themselves as the Moccasins climb back into contention for yet another Sunshine State Conference championship.