Another new season is about to begin for the Florida Southern softball team, year number 36 for both the Moccasins and head coach Chris Bellotto, and like each of the first 35 they've spent together, it brings another new set of challenges. Yet while the challenges themselves may be unique from year to year, the fact that every team before them had their own obstacles to overcome means the 2017 Moccasins know the goals they've set are certainly attainable. The Moccasins have accomplished so much in the last 35 years by pushing through whatever has stood in their way, the trophy case is overflowing, and Bellotto believes this year's team has the talent to achieve great things too.
Not all of the talent on this year's team was with the Moccasins a year ago, and though the Mocs have seven returning starters, as many as five newcomers could be in the lineup too. Another player not on last year's active roster was All-Sunshine State Conference second baseman Leah Pemberton, who redshirted after putting up some big numbers in 2015. When all of those pieces are put together, the Moccasins should be ready to continue the climb back up the conference standings they started last year and contend for their 25th SSC Championship.
Pemberton is one piece of the puzzle, and it will be nice to have her 62 career RBI back in the lineup, but the Moccasins also have their top three run producers and four of their top five hitters from last year back as well. That group will be joined by two highly productive local junior college transfers who combined for 77 RBI and 87 runs last year, and a freshman who was a 2-time All-State selection for one of Florida's perennial high school powers. The pitching staff returns two seniors who've combined for 130 appearances over the last three years, but the Moccasins are also looking for two freshmen to make big contributions too after impressive prep careers.
One thing Bellotto is counting on this year is a more stable infield situation than what the Moccasins had in 2016. With injuries as the primary culprit, the Mocs went through 11 starting middle infield combinations with all of them occurring at least once in the final 32 games. Overall, Florida Southern used five different players at second base and another five at shortstop. Another concern for Bellotto was the number of errors committed up the middle (43), and improved defense across the board is a must if the Mocs are going to make a run at a postseason bid or conference title.
They'll also need another big year from senior third baseman Erica Morrissey, who had a fantastic first season with the Mocs both offensively and defensively. Morrissey led Florida Southern with her .340 batting average, was tied for the team lead with 18 RBI, and led the Sunshine State Conference with 16 doubles. In the field, Morrissey was just as adept, committing only five errors all season, and just one in the last 21 games for a .986 fielding percentage during that time.
Pemberton should give the Moccasins another anchor at second base, a position she played for three years before being sidelined for all of 2016. The fifth-year senior hit .382 with 11 doubles, five home runs and 31 RBI in 45 games as a junior, and over the second half of that season was one of the SSC's most dominant players. Her .443 average in league play that year was further evidence, and she's ready to resume her role in the middle of the Florida Southern batting order.
Sophomore Makayla Deuberry was another Moccasin infielder who missed a large portion of the season due to injury. Prior to getting hurt, Deuberry was off to a good start in her college career and will have a chance to once again be Florida Southern's starting shortstop. Bellotto was pleased with her improved defense this spring, which will be one of the keys to the Mocs' success going forward.
Three players are in line for the first base job depending on what defensive alignment Bellotto wants to use and who is being used in the designated player's role. One of those is sophomore Jessica Trana, a First Team All-SSC selection in 2016 as a DP, which is where most of her playing time came as a freshman. Her 18 RBI tied her with Morrissey for the team lead and she matched Morrissey with one-third of her hits going for extra bases. The Mocs will have her bat in the lineup somewhere, whether it's in a similar role to last year or a more active role on the infield.
The other two potential first basemen are also catchers, which mean both of them could be starting at both of those positions as the situation dictates. Sophomore Zierra Flodman had a solid rookie season for the Moccasins but really took off late in the year when she hit .310 in April, the highest average for any catcher in the SSC during the final month of the season. Flodman saw most of her time behind the plate where she made 28 starts, but she also filled in occasionally in the outfield and at third base. With first base added to her possible list of duties this year, she'll be able to rotate with freshman Alex Mace when needed. A 2-time All-State selection as both a catcher and infielder for Bartow High School, Mace helped the Yellow Jackets win the class 8A title as a senior and Bellotto expects her to contribute right away at Florida Southern.
The Moccasins have another freshman catcher in Sam Gibson, who was a multi-purpose threat at Lexington Christian Academy in Massachusetts where she was the Eastern League Player-of-the-Year as a junior and senior. Gibson was a career .537 hitter in high school with 10 home runs and 78 RBI, bringing another valuable bat to the mix.
Juniors Ann Scios and Amanda Furar are competing for at-bats too. Scios has been mostly used a pinch-hitter and designated player in her first two seasons with the Moccasins, while Furar was the starting first baseman at St. Thomas University in Miami for two years before transferring to Florida Southern.
The outfield will likely have a different look this year with the arrival of junior college transfers Shannon Bell and Desirae Klumpp, though Florida Southern still has several returning veterans who have started in the outfield too. Some of those players will be at other positions this year, but Bellotto still has several options at her disposal.
Bell, who was the 2016 Suncoast Conference Player-of-the-Year, will be taking over in centerfield after leading Hillsborough Community College and the district with a .477 batting average while hitting 25 doubles and five home runs, and picking up 56 RBI. Klumpp, another 2-time All-Suncoast Conference selection, was HCC's leading hitter as a freshman with a .388 average and graduated with a .373 career average and .433 on-base percentage. Though she can also play the middle infield positions, Klumpp is slated for leftfield this year.
Among the returning outfielders, senior Erin Klein and junior Ashlyn Worcester saw the most playing time in 2016. Klein started 43 games, most of them in left, after joining the team as a junior college transfer. She was the team's second leading hitter with a .273 average and their biggest threat on the bases where she went 15-for-15, a perfect ratio unmatched by anyone else in the Sunshine State Conference. Overall, Worcester is still the team's most experienced outfielder with a total of 85 starts in her first two seasons. She shook off a slow start last year to hit .268 over the final two months of the season, and was over .300 for a good portion of that time.
Senior Dana Mackiewicz made 17 starts covering all three outfield positions and had some big hits at different points throughout the season. She started eight of the Mocs' 12 games in April, and sophomore Annemarie Tracey started four games during that same stretch, contributing seven stolen bases while frequently being used as a pinch-runner too. Junior Jordan Sheppard is another veteran outfielder who has appeared in 49 games over the last two seasons as the Mocs' top running choice and she also doubles as a catcher.
The Moccasins picked up another veteran outfielder in the fall when sophomore Donna Ryan transferred in from Carson-Newman University. Ryan started 36 games for the Eagles last year and had a strong finish to her rookie season with 13 of her 26 hits or walks coming in the month of April.
The pitching staff has an interesting dynamic this year with two seniors and two freshmen, and Bellotto believes the Moccasins will need all four of them by the end of the year. Needless to say, the Mocs will look first to Brandi Jones and Hannah Loyer, but expect to see plenty of Kristen Beacham and Kelli Gault too.
Jones has started 71 games in her career, has led the Mocs in wins each of the last three seasons for a total of 32 in her career, and been responsible for half their SSC wins during that span too. Jones is one of the league's top returning pitchers and though she wasn't always 100 percent last year she still took the ball on a regular basis and started 24 of the Moccasins' 46 games. A healthy Jones will go a long way toward setting up the Mocs' pitching rotation throughout the season.
Equally important to the Mocs' cause is the presence of Loyer, who has pitched mostly in relief the last three years while also playing some in the outfield. She's expected to take on a larger role as a pitcher this year after a dominant second half in 2016. Overall, Loyer was fourth in the SSC in strikeouts even with half the innings of many starting pitchers, and opponents hit just .197 against her. In her final 17.0 innings, Loyer allowed just one run, and it's that type of ability that Bellotto now wants to see over the course of an entire season.
The seniors may be looked to for leadership, but the freshmen are being asked to shoulder some of the load too. Last year, Florida Southern's third and fourth pitchers combined to throw 91.0 innings, and those innings are now available. Bellotto has not been afraid to put freshmen in critical situations in recent years, and it's a good bet that either Beacham or Gault, and maybe both, will be asked to step into some tough spots.
Beacham is a local product from Lakeland Christian School who led the Vikings to back-to-back state titles as a junior and senior. She won 52 games while averaging nearly nine strikeouts per game in addition to hitting .340 with eight home runs and 95 RBI. She'll be focused on pitching for the Moccasins though. Gault will give Florida Southern a rare left-hander after graduating from Manatee High School in Bradenton. She helped her travel ball team, the Sarasota Heat reach the ASA National Championships for the first time ever in 2015, so both pitchers have already proven capable of winning big games with their previous teams.
One thing that will make this season a little different is Florida Southern's temporary home field. For the first time in their history, the Moccasins will be spending an entire season off campus as construction gets underway for the new Barnett Athletic Complex. It will give the Mocs a brand new stadium they'll return to in 2018, but for this year they'll be playing a somewhat limited home schedule at the Auburndale Softball Complex. While there will be some extra logistics involved, the Mocs will be far better off in the long run, and it's a small price to pay for something that will benefit the program for many years to come.
The season gets underway on Friday, February 3 at the Eckerd College Spring Invitational in Clearwater, where the Moccasins will play the first three of their 43 scheduled games. The Mocs won't play at home until February 24 and 25 when they host Lynn in a 3-game Sunshine State Conference series that marks the first of their 19 games in Auburndale. This season will be only the third in the last 25 years in which the Mocs have played fewer than 20 home games.
The NCAA postseason begins with regional tournaments the second weekend in May, and this year's Division II National Tournament will be held in Salem, Virginia, May 25-29.