With only a few days until the start of opening weekend, No. 7 Florida looks to pick up right where it left off last season.
After sweeping Auburn last March, the Gators finished the condensed 2020 season atop the SEC standings with a 3-0 conference record. Florida boasted a 23-4 overall record including wins over five different ranked opponents.
UF enters the 2021 season with nearly all of its returning starters. Despite losing longtime shortstop Sophia Reynoso and outfielder Jade Caraway, the Gators return three seniors — outfielder Jamie Hoover, first baseman Kendyl Lindaman and southpaw Gainesville native Katie Chronister — who were each granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA.
Florida added five new freshmen — Haley Pittman, Avery Goelz, Emily Wilkie, Kali Reis and Katie Kistler — to its roster. Reis, a shortstop from Bradenton, Florida, is expected to fill Reynoso’s void in the Gators’ middle infield. “[Reis isn’t] quite ready to play at this level every single day,” UF head coach Tim Walton admitted. But Walton attributes her mishaps to simply being an immature freshman. “I’ve been really patient with her…her knowledge of the game is really, really, really high.”
The Gators also acquired Alabama transfer Skylar Wallace this offseason. The junior shortstop started all 22 games for the Crimson Tide last year and brings a wealth of experience to the Gators’ infield. Last year, Wallace hit .387 with 18 RBIs, 27 runs scored and nine stolen bases. In 2019, Wallace played on the U-19 USA Women’s National Team and made the SEC All-Freshman and All-Tournament Teams.
In the circle, the Gators are led by senior Natalie Lugo and Sophomore Rylee Trlicek. The duo started all but four of Florida’s games last season, compiling a 16-4 combined record. While maintaining a team-low .91 WHIP, Lugo hurled over 80 innings and struck out over 100 batters, both of which ranked No. 2 in the SEC. The California native led the conference in saves (6) and recorded the seventh lowest ERA (1.64) by a junior in program history.
In her freshman campaign, Trlicek pitched remarkably. The southpaw Texan boasted a sub-two ERA (1.99) and led the SEC in shutouts (3) en route to winning SoftballAmerica.com Freshman Pitcher of the Year. Trlicek became the first freshman in UF softball history to toss back-to-back complete-game shutouts in her first two conference starts.
In relief of Lugo and Trlicek, Florida will rely on Chronister, Pittman and junior right-hander Elizabeth Hightower to throw quality innings. Chronister and Hightower went a combined 7-0 across 37.2 innings pitched last year. Meanwhile, newcomer Pittman carries high expectations into Gainesville after winning Alabama Sports Writer Association 4A State Pitcher of the Year.
Florida’s top-two batters, Lindaman and third baseman Charla Echols, enter the season with lofty expectations after making the 2021 Preseason All-SEC Team. Lindaman and Echols were the only two Gators to hit over .400 last year. The duo hit over half of the team’s home runs (15 of 29) and drove in a combined 50 runs. “When you have an All-American like Kendyl Lindaman in your lineup…it’s definitely a luxury to have,” Walton said.
The Gators will lean on the bats of catcher Julia Cottrill, second baseman Hannah Adams as well as outfielders Cheyenne Lindsey and Baylee Goddard for extra run support. Each of the four returning starters racked up double-digit RBIs last year, and Cottrill, Adams and Lindsey all hit above .300.
Still, Florida’s lineup depth is what elevates the Gators to the next level. “We have 16 hitters that can play this year, and legitimately I think we can go 15 of them at any given day and really not drop off a ton,” Walton said.
Florida will head to Tampa this weekend for its opening series against USF. Following a double-header Saturday, the Gators will wrap up the road series Sunday afternoon before returning to Katie Pressly Seashole Stadium for their home opener on Feb. 17 versus Jacksonville. Florida will then host the Bubly Invitational before rounding out its non-conference schedule, which includes notable opponents such as Louisville and No. 12 Florida State. On March 12, the Gators will open SEC play in a home series against No. 13 Kentucky.
“It’s almost been a year since we’ve played as as a team…so we’re all super excited for this weekend and just to get out there and finally feel like a team again,” Lindaman said.