SOFTBALL: Stacey Stevens off to hot start

Sibling rivalries have been known to wreak havoc on entire families but in the case of Stacey Stevens, having a twin sister who also plays softball has always been the best part of the competition.

Stacey Stevens is a sophomore pitcher for the Florida Gators. She's got a sizzling fast ball and a competitive nature that makes her a natural for the position. Twin sister Shelley is the starting right fielder for the Gators, an excellent fielder and a tough out near the top of the batting order. Whenever Stacey gets a little nervous or needs a calming moment, all she has to do is look to her twin and everything is okay again.

"Having [Shelley] there is huge, because I always have someone going for me and she pushes me like no one else pushes me," Stevens said. "Whenever I throw to her [in practice] it's always the hardest out but she's made me better and it has always been a comfort too."

The Stevens twins have been making softball noise in Gainesville the past nine years. They led Buchholz High School to a number three national ranking during their time at the northwest Gainesville school. Named 2003 Miss Florida Softball and three-time Gainesville Sun Player of the Year, Stacey was first introduced to the game upon arriving to the Sunshine State from Baton Rouge, La.

"When I first got here I got a pitching coach and he kind of gave me the idea that I could take this to another level," Stacey said. "I know sixth grade seems kind of young, but from there I went to travel ball and got to meet even more coaches"

In her first year as a Buchholz Bobcat, she was named the team's defensive MVP and it was then that she begun to take it seriously, dreaming of a chance to one day pitch for UF.

After three more years of dominating high school competition and making high school All-America teams, Stacey and Shelly signed scholarships with UF. When Florida's All-SEC pitcher Jenny Gladding was lost for the season with an arm injury at midseason last year, Stacey was thrown into the fire as the Gators' number one pitcher. Although Gladding could no longer pitch, Florida's all-time best pitcher took the time to coach her freshman replacement.

"When she got hurt, she really became another pitching coach for me and it was comforting to have her there for me," Stacey said. "Even when I first got here, she took on the role of telling me what it was going to be like and helping me out."

In the ninth game of the 2004 season, Stevens was called upon for her first start against Arkansas in the GRU Classic. Despite the regular butterflies floating around in her stomach, it was cool and casual for the star pitcher from right down the street.

"I was a nervous wreck, but I get nervous for every game," she said. "I was worried because we were playing an SEC team so early in the season, but I think I struck out all but two outs in five innings."

Stacey's freshman campaign would be one to remember. The Arkansas game was just the first game of her 6-0 start en route to a 14-11 record. She would set Florida freshman records for strikeouts, games started, wins and saves.

This year, Stacey is 3-0 and has led the Gators to a No. 19 ranking in the Softball Poll, the first time they have ever been ranked in the opening poll. The Gators (7-0) won the Clearwater Invitational Tournament last weekend and will host the GRU Classic this weekend.

"This team is so much fun and we get along so well that the chemistry is really good," she said. "We push each other and we respond to each other better then I've seen on any other team I've played for."

The hot start hasn't changed the goals that she has set forth for herself this year: pitching her hardest each time to go with team goals of winning the SEC, regional and making the College World Series.

On her way to those goals, Stacey wouldn't mind conquering a little SEC rivalry either. Tennessee's Monica Abbott broke the NCAA freshman strikeout record in her first year of competition last year, and Stacey is gunning for her and the Lady Vols this year.

"She's a sophomore like me and is big, left handed and was the talk of the country last year," Stacey said. "She was going to come to Florida and I just want to win so I can show her that I'm happy here and she's sad because she's not."

For the starlet from down the street, coming home to play in front of her friends, family and supporters this weekend is always fun, but her biggest supporter will always be twin sister Shelley out in right field, shades on, glove tight and smile flashing.

"I'm going to be pumped for this weekend and maybe even a little more relaxed because I'm comfortable with these surroundings," Stacey said. "Being from Gainesville, I pretty much know everyone in the stands."

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