The Gators face big challenges after losing the winningest pitcher in school history (Stacey Nelson), the all-time leader in hits and stolen bases (Kim Waleszonia), a .386 hitting catcher (Kristina Hilberth) and a standout with the glove and bat at first base (Ali Gardiner).
Still, there's every reason to expect the Gators to be one of the nation's top teams next spring. After consecutive trips to the College World Series and strong recruiting classes; Tim Walton has the Florida program in position to be a national contender for the foreseeable future. The Gators will return seven players who have started regularly for at least half a season, a player who hit over .400 off the bench and a pitcher who hasn't lost a game in two years. That's a pretty good nucleus for the Gators to build around, and only two of those players will be seniors.
Let's take a look at the 2010 Gators position by position.
Pitcher ----- You don't just replace the winningest pitcher in school history. Nelson was so good for the Gators (136-36) that Walton says no one else will wear #42 as long as he's around. But the Gators will bring back Stephanie Brombacher for her junior season. Florida's No. 2 pitcher the last two years, Brombacher has posted an amazing 42-0 record with a 1.11 ERA. Nineteen of her wins have been shutouts and she should be ready to handle the top job. Incoming freshman Ensley Gammel, an All-State selection from California is the likely No. 2.
Catcher ----- Hilberth (.386) is gone, but Tiffany DeFelice should set up behind the plate after an injury plagued sophomore year. A bad wrist limited DeFelice in 2009, but as a freshman she hit seven HR. There should be plenty of competition here with junior Kristine Priebe looking for playing time as well as incoming freshmen Brittany Schutte and Kelsey Horton.
First Base ----- Kelsey Bruder is expected to move in from right field to replace Ali Gardiner (.295, 9, 48). Bruder had a sensational sophomore season (.369, 16, 68) and as good as Gardiner was should give the Gators increased productivity at this position.
Second Base ----- In two years with the Gators Aja Paculba (.368, 9, 34) has been a dynamic offensive player. She stole a school record 27 bases this season and is among the top players in the country at her position.
Shortstop ----- She looks like your kid sister, but Megan Bush (.326, 16, 46) is anything but sweet to opponents with a bat in her hands. Bush gives the Gators solid defense with just ten errors at shirt plus big time power in the bottom half of the batting order. Her 29 home runs are the most for any Gator player in their first two seasons.
Third Base ----- Corrie Brooks is one of the best in the country defensively with a superb throwing arm. The also added to her offensive resume as a junior with more HR (11) and RBI (52) than in her freshman and sophomore seasons combined.
Left Field ----- Francesca Enea returns for her senior year after breaking the school records for HR (18) and RBI (71) last season. She is Florida's career leader in both categories (41, 157) and could put those numbers out of reach with a big final season.
Centerfield ----- Most thought the Gators were in trouble when Waleszonia went down early in the season, but freshman Michelle Moultrie stepped in and did a solid job (.261, 2, 17). Moultrie gives the Gators excellent speed (15 SB) and will deliver more power as she matures.
Right Field ----- Like catcher, this could be a competitive situation, but the early edge has to go to sophomore Alicia Sisco. Sisco swung the bat very well (.404) in limited playing time and will have a chance to claim the job.
Florida also has Shaunice Harris returning and looking for playing time as well as incoming freshmen Samantha Holle from Tampa and Texan Brittany Walker. Out of that group and the catching candidates Walton will have plenty of options for the designated player role.
Last season Walton had t-shirts with bulls-eyes on them to remain his team they were everyone's target. I don't know what he'll use for motivation in 2010, but it's bound to focus on the one remaining prize for the program – an NCAA Championship. One thing is certain, there's plenty of talent on hand for the Gators to make another run.
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