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Preview: Raider softball strives for state title

The 2012 Raiders fastpitch softball team.

For all the talent and ability Seminole State College of Florida’s 2011 fastpitch softball team had, their season ended in a disappointing first-day ouster from the Florida College System Athletics Association (FCSAA) State Tournament. But Raider Head Coach Courtney Miller and her team are eager to change that for the 2012 season.

“Whoever’s hot at the time usually wins,” Miller says in regards to the tournament. “We didn’t show up to play. [This year’s] sophomores had an early exit last year, and they’ll use it as motivation this season.”

And with six All-Mid-Florida Conference (MFC) athletes returning from the 2011 squad, including three All-FCSAA players (one each in the infield, in the outfield and on the mound), expectations are high.

The Raiders have made an annual event of being invited to the FCSAA State Tournament, but this year they have designs on dominance in and out of the conference. The experienced and talented Raiders look poised to make a deep run at the state championship, and maybe more – as long as they can execute properly.

“If our pitching staff stays healthy and can do what they’re expected, we could have a shot at winning the conference,” Miller says.

There’s a high ceiling for this team, and with a few good breaks, the Raiders could find themselves strong postseason contenders.

The Team

While Seminole State’s 2012 softball team is comprised of more freshmen than sophomores, the team’s core will be its returning members, who bring an abundance of experience and ability on both sides of the ball. The Raiders return four of their top players in key positions from a sharp 2011 squad. This year’s team has its focus squarely on a strong conference showing and a trip to the postseason.

It won’t be easy. The Raiders have to navigate a tough conference schedule even to be invited to participate in the FCSAA Tournament – facing off against perennial powerhouses Santa Fe College and Florida State College at Jacksonville, both of whom finished last season with a dominant 20-4 conference record. Seminole State finished third at 17-7.

Miller says the MFC is even stronger this season than it was last year, with more parity among the teams. Still, the goal and expectations are the same as always – to win a conference title and make it deep into the postseason.

“If we don’t make the state tournament, this season will be a disappointment,” Miller says.

Batting

From 1995 through 2010, the Seminole State softball single-season home run record stood strong at 13. But in 2011, third baseman Kalee Tabor shattered it, hitting 17 home runs – good for the second-highest total in the state. And as if that wasn’t enough, catcher Jordan Cook played the Sammy Sosa to Tabor’s Mark McGwire, also topping the previous record by hitting 14.

Both Tabor and Cook return for the 2012 season, along with four or five other sluggers Miller says are strong enough to hit multiple home runs. There will be a lot of power at the plate.

The leadoff batter in the lineup will likely be the top returning hitter, Kristie Hoeffer, who was fourth in the state last season in both hits (83) and runs scored (42) while also contributing 21 doubles, four home runs and 23 stolen bases. Her ability to get on base will be reinforced by the power hitters who follow her, including Tabor, Cook and Jessica Gipson.

Additionally, the Raiders sport a lot of role-players to fill out the batting order – for example, strong pinch hitters and bunters. One of Coach Miller’s central philosophies is if an athlete can hit well, she will play, regardless of what role her hitting takes.

“Everybody has a role,” she says. “We have a lot of good sticks off the bench. There’s a lot of depth.”

On the Mound

Pitching is perhaps the most important indicator of a great team, and it happens to be one of Seminole State’s strongest aspects. Second-team All-FCSAA pitcher Lauren Vinson returns to the rotation fresh off a 20-win season, and Seminole State has a formidable No. 2 pitcher in All-MFC southpaw Lindsey Nolan (18-10 last season).

“We play a lot of double-headers,” Miller says, “so it’s important to have two good pitchers.”

Miller says Vinson can top her pitches out over 60 mph, providing strength and power to the mound. Nolan has more of a finesse style that will give opposing batters a different look. This dichotomy is particularly important during double-headers, so the opposition never gets too comfortable with a single pitching style.

Having two pitchers ensures one will always be fresh. Miller says a lot of teams have one great pitcher on whom they rely all year, but who winds up exhausted by the time the postseason arrives. With two All-MFC-level pitchers on hand, the Raiders look poised to stand dominant on the mound.

Behind Vinson and Nolan, sophomore Myraida Figueroa and freshman Marshanna Boyette will see some innings, particularly during out-of-conference play in February as Miller finalizes a pitching rotation.

Behind the Plate

One of the leaders in the infield will be returning catcher Jordan Cook, whose strength and importance to the team go beyond power hitting. Cook received second-team All-MFC honors as a freshman in 2011, and she could improve on that this season. Of all returning players for Seminole State softball, Cook led the way last year in putouts (170) and fielding percentage (.974).

Freshman Adrienne LeBeau and sophomore transfer Dominique Gillard will also see time behind the plate. Both have the strength and potential to add another power stick to the batting order on offense.

Infield

Along with Cook at the 2 slot, the Raiders welcome back All-FCSAA first-teamer Kalee Tabor at third base and All-MFC shortstop Jessica Gipson to anchor a strong defensive infield.

“Jessica is our top defensive player,” Miller says. “She’s probably the best defensive shortstop in the state.”

Gipson easily led the Raiders in assists last season with 122 – good for No. 3 in the state – against only 13 errors. She also recorded 79 putouts. Freshman middle infielder Danielle Walsh can take Gipson’s place if needed.

Depending on how Miller finalizes the roster, there may be some experience at second base with sophomore Kristie Hoeffer – who may be slotted in the outfield – and Walsh can add some depth at the position. Also, freshman Elizabeth Eby, who saw time in the fall behind the plate and at third, will make the transition to second base for spring ball.

But first base will almost certainly become a proving ground for new talent. With three players listed on the roster as possibilities to play first (Priscilla Gonzalez, Dominique Gillard and Andrea Monayarji), it will likely be position-by-committee, at least early in the season.

Miller says out-of-conference play in February will determine how play time is awarded during the MFC schedule.

Outfield

Miller expects the Seminole State outfield to be very strong defensively, but questions remain about their offensive effectiveness. If Hoeffer is finalized at second base rather than in the outfield, all three outfielders will be new or unproven on offense. During the fall exhibition season, freshman Rachel Sherman proved to be the most effective batter of all the outfielders, and freshman Joanna Malandrucco has the strongest arm and the best potential to add power to the batting lineup. But fall success is not always indicative of spring performance.

“The freshmen always have the biggest road to making adjustments,” Miller says. “Here we have five kids competing for three spots, so the outfield will probably be platooned depending on who’s having a hot streak.”

Among those looking to make contributions to the outfield are freshmen Alyssa Bastin and Alexis Granito, both quick left-handers with the ability to cover lots of ground. Returners Carly Wolff and Alexis Schlotter both gained game experience last year and will contribute to the Raiders’ defensive presence.

Season at a Glance

By the Feb. 7 home opener against Hillsborough Community College, Seminole State will already be battle-tested by stalwart out-of-conference competition.

The Raiders begin their season Jan. 28 with a trip to Clearwater, where they will participate in the JUCO Kickoff Classic & Showcase and square off against strong opponents Northwest Florida State and Gulf Coast State. Then on Feb. 4, Seminole State will head to Winter Haven to face 2011Suncoast Conference champion Polk State College – whom the Raiders host on Feb. 14.

“Those are some big-name opponents to challenge us right out of the gate,” Miller says.

While focus is on conference play and making the postseason, Miller hopes to win at least 40 games this year, a goal she says is attainable but ambitious. Last season, only six teams in the FCSAA hit the 40-win benchmark. Five of those teams are on Seminole State’s 2012 schedule, including MFC foes Santa Fe College and Florida State College.

But it’s not just the high-octane squads with whom the Raiders are concerned. During a season that promises parity throughout the MFC, every game presents new obstacles and unique challenges.

“Anybody can beat anybody on a given day,” Miller says. “The conference isn’t as top-heavy anymore, and everyone is pretty evenly matched.”

Still, Miller expects particularly stiff competition from the Santa Fe Saints and Florida State College Stars. With wins expected to come at a premium, remaining competitive against these teams will be vital to conference success.

Seminole State will host Santa Fe on March 8 and Florida State College on March 24. The Raiders travel to Gainesville to take on the Saints on March 31, and they face the Stars in Jacksonville on April 12.

All Raider home events are free to Seminole State students, faculty and staff with a valid Seminole State ID. Admission is also available to the general public for a small fee. For more information, and to view the Raiders' complete season schedule, please visit the Seminole State softball home page.

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