There is a keen sense of excitement and renewed enthusiasm for the Florida Southern softball team this year as the Moccasins return home following what amounted to an entire year on the road. With the Barnett Athletic Complex under construction throughout last spring and into the fall, the Moccasins spent months shuttling themselves across Lakeland and nearby Auburndale for practices and games while they marked off the days until their new on-campus stadium was ready for use. That day is nearly here, with Chris Bellotto Field set to officially open on February 16 against the University of Tampa. By then, the Moccasins will have already practiced there for a month and played four regular-season games on the road, but that has only served to heighten the anticipation.
No one feels that more than Chris Bellotto, who is in her 37th year as head coach of the Moccasins. Having already guided Florida Southern to over 1,200 wins since the program became an NCAA sport in 1982, she'll be adding to that total in a stadium that now bears her name. Making that task a little bit easier is the presence of five returning All-Sunshine State Conference players, tied with defending champion Saint Leo for the most of any team in the league, and the most for Florida Southern since 2009. That team went on to win the SSC title after a sixth-place finish the previous season, and Bellotto and the Mocs are looking for a similar turn-around in 2018.
The numbers put up by last year's squad were not those of a 17-24 team that finished eighth in the SSC standings, especially on defense where they had one of the best seasons in program history. Nevertheless, the lack of timely hitting is something Bellotto often reflects on when she looks back at the 2017 season and sees 10 one-run losses in conference play or against the SSC's two provisional members, Embry-Riddle and Palm Beach Atlantic, who will be full SSC participants this year. If even half those games go the other way, the Mocs jump four places in the standings, and it's another reminder to this year's team how close they are to once again being contenders for the SSC championship.
Among the players back in 2018 are senior outfielders Shannon Bell and Desirae Klumpp, who came to Florida Southern as junior college transfers, stepped right into the lineup, and earned all-conference honors their first year. They formed two-thirds of the league's best defensive outfield and produced at the plate too, and Bellotto is hoping they pick up where they left off by sparking the Moccasin offense at the top of the batting order.
Bell led Florida Southern and ranked among the SSC leaders with a .345 average, and also led the Moccasins in extra-base hits with 12 (nine doubles, two triples and one home run). She committed just one error while playing every inning in centerfield, the best percentage in the SSC for anyone at that position. Several times, Bell turned what appeared to be a hit into a dazzling catch on balls hit in front of her, behind her, or to either side. She led the Mocs with six outfield assists too. Klumpp hit .298, was second on the team with a .380 on-base percentage, and hit .361 the final month of the season. She handled left field in the same manner Bell did center, at a level unmatched in the Sunshine State Conference. Her 82 chances without an error were the most in team history by an outfielder, and she was the only outfielder in the SSC with a perfect percentage. If Bell or Klumpp couldn't catch it, then no one could.
While centerfield and leftfield are in the hands of two returning all-conference performers, freshman Lindsey Wilson from Chandler, Arizona has won the job in right. A 4-year starter at 13-time state champion Seton Catholic Prep, she hit .578 with a .614 on-base percentage as a high school senior after batting .469 as a junior.
The Moccasins have two other veterans who have started games in the outfield too, though senior Ashlyn Worcester. The other is junior Annie Tracey, who has appeared in 50 games overall with nine starts at the corner outfield positions and could be plugged into either of those spots again. Both Tracey and senior Jordan Sheppard bring an extra dose of speed to the lineup, with Tracey stealing 10 bases in 10 attempts during her career. Sheppard has 71 appearances and though she doesn't have the stolen base numbers Tracey has, she has often been the weapon of choice in critical late-inning base-running situations. Freshman Samantha Prosser, a. 480 hitter as a senior at Tennessee's Cornersville High School, could fill a similar role for the Moccasins.
Florida Southern will have to replace all-conference players at second base and third base who were first and second on the team in RBI last year, but the Mocs still have two other potential infielders who have been All-SSC at one point or another. They also return a top-flight shortstop, who like Bell and Klumpp in the outfield, led the SSC in fielding percentage at her position. A strong recruiting class will help fill in the gaps too.
Junior Jessica Traña was first team All-SSC in 2016, and sophomore Alex Mace was a first team selection in 2017. Both of them earned that honor as designated players, with Mace serving as the Mocs' primary DP last year and Traña playing first base. They've been battling for that position again this year, though either of them could still be used in the DP slot. Mace could also play second base or catcher, two other positions where she made three starts apiece. That's a nice luxury for Bellotto when filling out the lineup card, though Mace made the All-SSC team on the strength of her bat, specifically in conference play where she hit .346 before missing the final two series due to injury. That average ranked 11th in the league. Traña has driven in 29 runs for the Mocs over the last two years and during her all-conference season of 2016, a third of her hits went for extra bases, the best percentage for any Moccasin in the last five years.
At shortstop, junior Makayla Deuberry made a big jump offensively for the Moccasins but it was in the field where she really made her mark. She had a knack for making difficult plays look routine, whether it was in the hole or up the middle, and solidified that position after the Mocs went through five shortstops in 2016 when Deuberry was injured halfway through the season. At the plate, she upped her batting average by 43 points and her on-base percentage by 82 points.
Second base has been a 3-way battle between Mace, Worcester and newcomer Alli Carroll. After three seasons as an outfielder, Worcester is making the transition to the infield and is looking to contribute from that position after starting 88 games in her career up to this point, primarily in right field. Carroll joins the Moccasins from Hillsborough Community College where she was an all-conference outfielder as a sophomore, hitting .315 with 16 doubles, one home run, and 28 RBI. A Tampa native, Carroll is another in a long line of players from the Tampa Mustangs travel ball program that helped her team win a national championship in 2014.
Freshman Shannon Reilly is another middle infielder battling for playing time and brings a strong resume from Port Orange on Florida's east coast where she hit .475 with 25 extra-base hits and 55 RBI over her last two seasons as an all-area selection for Atlantic High School.
Two more freshmen, Kensie Green and Jenna Weldon, have gone head-to-head for the open third base position, but could also help the Moccasins in other spots too. Green comes from another local softball factory, Bartow High School, and hit .411 with three home runs and 19 RBI as a senior there. She was first team all-state as a junior, capping that season with a walk-off home run to win the Class 8A state championship game. Weldon made the 9A all-state team for University High School in central Florida and hit .457 with seven home runs and 33 RBI as a senior.
The remaining corner infielders could see playing time at their regular positions, serve as pinch-hitters, or be in the lineup as the designated player. Senior first baseman Ann Scios has already filled that role in throughout her career while leading the Mocs in pinch-hitting appearances over the last three seasons. Another senior, Amanda Furar, is recovering from an arm injury that has kept her sidelined since returning from break, but she has starting experience from St. Thomas University where she played two years before transferring to Florida Southern.
Junior Zierra Flodman is behind the plate again following an all-conference season that saw her hit .268 with seven doubles, one home run and 19 RBI. She was especially productive over the second half of the season when she hit .317 overall and .391 with runners in scoring position. Flodman's 19 RBI last season and 30 career RBI are the most among returning players. Mace and Green can also handle catching duties if needed, as could sophomore Sam Gibson, a utility player who put up monstrous numbers at Lexington Christian Academy in Massachusetts.
Three pitchers tied for the team lead in wins last year and two of them are back. Sophomores Kristen Beacham and Kelli Gault each had some big moments in their first year, but Florida Southern still has the youngest pitching staff in the SSC, whether that's measured by innings pitched in 2017 or in career innings. Beacham tossed an opening day shutout in her first start, was the SSC Pitcher-of-the-Week after beating Eckerd in 10 innings a few weeks later, and threw six shutout innings to beat Embry-Riddle. A 2-time Florida state pitcher-of-the-year at the high school level, she went 5-8 in her first college season and was second on the pitching staff in starts (11) and innings pitched (71.1). Though Gault started just six games, she was second in total appearances with 16, posting a 5-3 record. Her season highlights included a complete game shutout of Georgia Southwestern in her second start and six scoreless innings out of the bullpen against Nova Southeastern. Her 1.02 ERA in April was the best on the staff during the final month of the season.
Joining the Moccasins this year is junior Aubrey Ehlers, another transfer from Hillsborough Community College. She won 19 games for the Hawks the past two seasons, was second team all-conference as a sophomore and led the team in nearly every pitching category as a freshman. Weldon could also see time in the pitcher's circle too in addition to her role in the batting order. She struck out 103 batters in 85.1 innings in her high school career while opponents hit just .187 against her.
The Moccasins will open the season February 7 with a trip to South Carolina for a pair of doubleheaders before making their long-awaited debut at Chris Bellotto Field on February 16. That marks the first of 25 home games, a more normal amount for the Moccasins after they were somewhat limited last year while playing off-campus in another city. The middle of February, with only four games up to that point, may still be too early to tell what type of team Florida Southern will have in 2018, but Bellotto and the Moccasins know a quick turn-around is possible. Better production in run-scoring situations, the further development of an extremely young pitching staff, and continued strong play on defense will likely push the Mocs back into the top level of the Sunshine State Conference standings as they attempt to add to their record number of league titles in a new era of Florida Southern softball.