Dec. 4, 2001
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. –
The Florida State softball team, coming off of hosting an NCAA Regional in 2001, completed a fall schedule that saw the team play four games and allowed the coaching staff to begin the process of preparing for the 2002 season and one of the toughest schedules in school history. The Seminoles, who finished their 2001 campaign ranked No. 15, will play a schedule that features at least one team that played in the 2001 Women’s College World Series (Oklahoma), 13 games versus teams that made the 2001 NCAA Tournament and four games against squads that finished the season ranked in the Top 25.
“The caliber of kids we have on this team aren’t intimidated by anyone and they aren’t afraid to play any team,” said head coach JoAnne Graf. “I don’t think facing this tough of a schedule is going to be a problem and conversely I think it will help this team grow up quicker. Playing a difficult schedule early in the year will make them tougher by the time we get to conference. I think it is going to be good for our team and I believe that you will never be able to beat the best unless you play the best so taking some losses early will eventually help us down the road.”
The Seminoles lost five starters off of a squad that posted a 58-12 record, the seventh-best winning percentage in the nation and came within one strike of making their sixth appearance in the Women’s College World Series. Florida State went into its fall schedule looking to replace All-American’s Serita Brooks and Staci Brandon, the country’s sixth-best pitcher according to ERA and a first team All-Southeast selection in Jen White-Stokes and first team All-Southeast region first baseman Robyn Gauger.
“It was a good fall,” said Graf. “I think we improved tremendously but we still have a long way to go. We are very young this year and that hasn’t been the case the last two years. That is going to be a little bit different. It was hard to believe how many new players we had out there. You don’t really realize it until you see them all. We really had to start over in a lot of areas. I caught myself jumping ahead sometimes thinking the kids already knew things, which they may not have.”
Despite the loss of White-Stokes from the nation’s No. 1 pitching staff in 2001, Florida State should be in good position to continue right where it left off. Reigning ACC Player of the Year Leslie Malerich, an Easton second team All-American and third-team NFCA/Louisville Slugger All-American in 2001, returns to anchor the staff. The senior posted the tenth-best ERA in the nation last year (0.72) and ranked 26th in the nation with 26 wins.
“I think our pitching staff is very experienced and we will count on them early in the season” said Graf. “They are going to have to lead us early on and they are going to have to be consistent. We will rely on them to keep us in some ballgames until the bats get warmed up. I feel good about the staff though. Leslie (Malerich) is a senior and she has faced every conceivable situation you could be in. She threw really well in the fall and I think she is ready for a great senior year.”
Malerich will be joined by ACC Rookie of the Year Jessica van der Linden and highly recruited freshman Casey Hunter in the Seminole rotation. Van der Linden, whose 0.84 ERA would have placed her 16th in the nation had she pitched approximately 10 more innings, had a breakout freshman campaign for FSU going 13-3 including three no-hitters. Hunter, considered one of Illinois’ top high school prospects, posted a 15-2 record and a 0.35 ERA with 225 strikeouts in 120 innings during her senior season.
“Jessica (van der Linden) learned a lot last year as a freshman,” said Graf. “I think she lost some games she shouldn’t have lost and she learned from that. I expect her to do an even better job this year from an experience standpoint. Casey (Hunter) will be the rookie of the staff and she’ll have to learn. She’s going to have to get in there and throw but we saw a big improvement in her from the first scrimmage to the second. I think she is going to continue to improve as she gets more playing time.”
The Seminoles will need to find an immediate replacement in the outfield due to the loss of Brooks and also at the shortstop position due to the graduation of Natalie Bennett.
The senior outfielder, who set NCAA records for consecutive steals and steals in a single game was a mainstay in center field for Florida State while Bennett was a team-leader in the middle of FSU’s infield. The signing of NJCAA All-Southeast region players Shandra and Shundra Colzie should go a long way towards filling Brooks’ void in the outfield and on the base paths while newcomers Tatiana George, Bryttani Lindheim and Robyn Larson vie to start at shortstop.
“I think the Colzies bring a little more experience than your average freshman,” said Graf. “They are going through a little bit of an adjustment period due to the fact they will face a higher level of pitching. They are both ready to start and they are both capable of starting right away. Their speed gives us a lot of options and they are going to be fun to coach.”
The Seminoles fall scheduled allowed the staff to play everyone and experiment, which was key considering there are six new faces on the 2002 roster. The 2002 Seminoles will be attempting to replace the most starters lost since FSU returned just three in 2000. That 2000 squad made it to the finals of the West Regional in UCLA.
“I think we will be stronger offensively from top to bottom,” said Graf. “It has been awhile since we had to fill this many holes. That will be different for the kids this season but it bodes well for the future obviously because we don’t lose as many next year.
“The fall schedule provided us with a really a good chance to put people in different positions and try some different line-ups and batting orders. We were able to experiment with moving some players around defensively and get solidified in the coaches’ minds where we wanted to start the spring. It was also a great way to acclimate the new players to Division I softball, which I think is always very important. It is so different from either high school or junior college.”
As usual, the Seminoles will utilize its entire bench throughout the season but the staff believes the fall schedule allowed them to get a pretty solid idea of how they want to start the season. With second team Easton All-American Brandi Stuart back and Kimmy Carter once again handling the pitching staff behind the plate, FSU should be solid up the middle again this season. Monique Marier had the team’s best power numbers last year leading FSU in doubles, home runs, RBI’s and slugging percentage and she returns for her senior season. Sophomores Elisa Velasco, Skyla Cox, Beth Wade, Leah Armstrong and Julie Jordan will also be counted on even more during the 2002 campaign.
“I think we will start out with a set group of starters but I still think there will be some challenges,” said Graf. “The biggest challenge will be for the players who get that starting nod to remain consistent and hit the ball because those will be the two areas we are going to look at. Other players will get a chance and we will play a lot of people early in the season so they can get their chances before we get to conference play.
“It is going to be a little bit of a different year because the players are going to have to go through some games and get into some tough situations in order to learn how to get out of them. But we have the caliber of players that we be able to do that.”
This will be the first season since 1995 that Florida State will not be competing for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament in either the Metro Conference/ACC Alliance or the South Atlantic Softball Alliance (SASA), If the Seminoles want to make their 15th NCAA appearance, they will need to gain an at-large invitation from the NCAA. With NC State scheduled to add softball in 2003, the ACC will finally have enough softball schools to qualify for an automatic bid from the conference next year.
“I am not that worried about not having an automatic bid this season because I believe there will be enough at-large bids,” said Graf. “We are in a region that we finished first in last year and the odds are that if we win the conference we will finish first in the region again.”
Just in case the NCAA selection committee thinks about overlooking the Seminoles in 2002, Graf scheduled one of the program’s most difficult regular season slates in memory. With 13 games against teams who qualified for the 2001 NCAA Tournament on the schedule and the possibility of facing even more in either the Seminole Invitational or Kia Classic, FSU will have its hands full all season long.
“I don’t think the loss of a possible SASA bid is going to hurt us and it gave us an even better reason to strengthen our schedule this year, which we have done,” said Graf. “Last year we had the nation’s sixth toughest schedule and this year it should be even tougher. We will probably lose more games this year than we did last season due to our schedule strength but I think we will be an even stronger team at the end of the season. Hopefully it will help us take that one little step further, which would land us in the College World Series.”
The Seminoles hosted an NCAA Regional in 2001 for the first time since the 1996 season and FSU came within one pitch of advancing to the program’s sixth College World Series. The Seminoles were ahead of the Cal Golden Bears in the bottom of the 10th inning in the regional championship game before a two strike, two out double plated two runs and ended the Seminoles’ season.
“I think the team is over the tough ending to last season when we fell just one strike short of the College World Series,” said Graf. “That is one of the good things about kids today is that they don’t dwell on stuff for too long. I’m not so sure I’m over but I think the coaches probably had a harder time letting it go than the kids did. We know how few chances you get to make that trip to Oklahoma City but the kids adjust and they get over it really well. I think they are looking at it as a push or challenge to take that extra step this season. I think they have responded very well and it will end up being a very good thing for us.”
Florida State opens its 2002 campaign Sunday, February 3 with a doubleheader against Georgia Southern at the Seminole Softball Complex. The Seminoles’ home schedule features NCAA Regional participants Florida Atlantic, Washington, South Carolina, Penn State, Florida and North Carolina.