The women's tennis team has been carrying around the burden of a second-round loss to Miami for a year. But Roland Thornqvist's players can feel much better about themselves after a solid NCAA Tournament this time around. The Gators fell in the national semi-finals to a very solid Texas team and earned a tie for third in the final national rankings. While the Gators have won four NCAA Championships and six times have been runner-up, I refuse to consider reaching the semi-finals a disappointment.
This team played most of the season with one senior, one junior, one sophomore and three freshmen in the singles lineup. That kind of youth/inexperience generally makes you susceptible to upsets, but that didn't happen. Florida did lose a pair of tough road matches in the SEC when Kentucky and Vanderbilt, both ranked in the top five knocked off the Gators on the same weekend. The Gators eventually avenged both setbacks on their way to a SEC Tournament Championship.
The year saw Zerene Reyes reach milestone wins as she topped the 100-mark in both singles and doubles. The number 100 also made a prominent appearance for the coach as Thornqvist earned his 100th victory in just his fourth season in Gainesville. Thornqvist's 100-8 record is amazing and includes three trips to the final four and a championship in 2003.
And the future looks good as well. Florida will return six of seven players and hopes to have senior-to-be Boglarka Berecz at full strength. That's something they didn't have all year. Look for a top player or two to be added and for Florida once again to be in their familiar spot as the team to beat in the SEC in 2006.
Softball Needs to Learn to Finish
In five years at UF Florida softball Coach Karen Johns has done a solid job, but not good enough to avoid being dismissed by the University. The Gators have averaged almost forty wins a season (38.4) and earned four NCAA bids. But the Gators have had trouble finishing seasons in a positive manner. That's a trend that needs to be reversed in 2006.
This year's Gator squad was 36-12 in late April, but ended the year losing eleven of the final 16 games. That includes embarrassing two-and-out performances at home in both the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. Last year the Gators were cruising at 38-and-9, but faded down the stretch, winning just three times in the final 14 games. The 2003 Gators went from 30-10 to 41-25 --- dropping 15 of their final 26 games in the process. In 2002 it was six straight losses to end the season and in Johns first season the Gators dropped five of the last six.
Overall Florida has lost ten of eleven SEC games and six of eight NCAA matchups in the past five years. While the 2004 team can be forgiven due to the devastating injury to pitching star Jenny Gladding, Florida still has some very disappointing numbers to try and reverse.
Perhaps the key to that next year will come at three positions as we assess the '06 Gators well in advance. First, and foremost the pitching must improve. Florida got a solid effort in the circle this year, but a dominant pitcher needs to emerge. Florida's ERA is a rather ordinary 2.16 and Florida averaged 6 strikeouts per seven innings, far below what top teams enjoy.
The top candidate is incoming freshman Lindsay Littlejohn from Bartow. Littlejohn is considered by some to be the best pitcher the state has ever produced and posted a 21-1 record this year. She was the winning pitcher in the State Championship game each of her four years of high school. In fact, she pitched a shutout each time! Last year she was 24-1 and allowed two earned runs in 144 innings. This year before winning the final, Littlejohn pitched a no-hitter in the semi-final game, striking out 17 along the way. Stacy Nelson will also come in from California to join Littlejohn in challenging Stacey Stevens (24-14, 2.19) for the job.
Florida must get more productivity offensively and defensively at third base. Enter Brooke Johnson, a nationally recruited player from Lake Gibson High School in Lakeland. Johnson was hitting an unheard of .500 at one point this season and is expected to move from shortstop to third in Gainesville. Stacie Pastrak is the incumbent and was Florida's top base stealer with 19. But she had just 12 RBI at a position that is expected to provide power and committed 13 errors.
Thirdly, Florida would love to have the kind of leadoff hitter who can terrorize defenses with both power and speed. That job could fall to California product Kim Waleszonia. The 5-5 outfielder was a sensation as a junior, hitting .556 with five homers, 36 RBI and a dozen stolen bases.
Departing Coach Karen Johns considered this recruiting class to be her best and will need that to be the case if the program is to reach the next level. That level is of being a legit contender in the SEC, a team that can beat anyone come tournament time and a team that will play its best down the stretch.
One vote for Equestrian
On the issue of what women's team the University of Florida should next add Geoffrey writes: " Equestrian is a great fit. We are near Ocala (which is horse country) and the facilities could be found anywhere. There is a recruiting base for equestrian and it would not be difficult to find a coach."
I don't know about the recruiting base and coach issues, but I don't think UF wants a team that has to go to Ocala to compete. If equestrian were to be the choice, an excellent facility exists ten miles west of Gainesville on Newberry Road. My question about it would be the cost issue of travelling the horses to competition. And, tell me this, do the student-athletes provide their own horse?
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