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Preview: Raider softball eyes conference title

The 2014 Seminole State College of Florida Raider softball team

The Seminole State College of Florida softball team faces a familiar challenge in 2014.

Returning just five starters from the 2013 squad that went 36-27 and got within a game of the Florida College System Activities Association (FCSAA) state semi-finals, the 2014 Raiders, who opened at home on Tuesday, Feb. 11,  will have to utilize their raw talent and softball savvy to make up for a relative lack of college-level experience.

But one thing Head Coach Courtney Miller has proven during her two decades of coaching at Seminole State is that she knows how to mold a winning team. Miller has racked up more than 700 wins at Seminole State and is knocking on the door of 800 career wins.

“The lack of experience we have is definitely a disadvantage, but with some hard work, we’ll be able to even everything out,” Miller says. “The month of February will be critical in building confidence and setting up a lineup, but we’ll be ready for conference play in March.”

The team, green as it is, has all the right pieces to make a run at a Mid-Florida Conference (MFC) championship and more, Miller says. But there is a wealth of talented teams throughout Florida, many concentrated within the conference. Miller’s expectations are high but tempered with caution.

“We can’t take any games for granted,” Miller says. “We have to win every game we’re supposed to win, and hopefully we can surprise a few teams along the way.”

The Team

The 2014 Raiders are relatively young and inexperienced compared with the last few years, but Miller says the team has a great deal of next-level talent waiting to be polished.

With an experienced infield and a strong pitching staff, the defense is solid and stacked with sound fundamentals. Above all, the Raiders are quick: Miller says this could be one of the fastest overall teams she has coached, which could lead to ball-hawking defense and an offense boosted by quick base running and stolen bases. But getting on base in the first place could prove difficult early on.

“The main thing we need to work on is consistency at the plate,” Miller says. “A lot of players have the potential to give us a good spark on offense, but they still have a lot to prove.”

And the players are excited to prove it. Miller says they are aware of the history of excellence set by Seminole State’s softball program, and they are highly motivated by it.

“They work hard, and they know about our long history of tournament appearances,” she says. “They want to make their own identity, but the tradition drives them to be the best they can be.”

The Raiders have made it to the FCSAA State Tournament 13 times straight, including a few years during which the team has had comparable levels of inexperience. Miller expects the 2014 Raiders to work hard to keep the streak alive.

Batting

The batting order will feature speed at the top of the lineup with strong hitters pushed toward the center. Miller says the lineup will likely change quite a bit through February until the most effective batting order is determined, but she is confident she will be able to find an order that produces offense.

“We have at least five or six solid hitters right now, but after that, things get a little murky,” Miller says. “I know who’s going to be near the front of the lineup, but there are always a few surprises. As the season progresses, it might just click for some kids.

Among the players that will feature prominently into the lineup are sophomores Haley Brown, of St. Petersburg, and Stefanie “Skip” Williams, of Sorrento, as well as freshman Ashley Sims, of Brooksville. Sims led the team in both hitting and stolen bases during the fall exhibition season, and even though she is unproven in FCSAA play, Miller expects her to have a big impact on the team’s success.

Adding some power to the lineup will be sophomores Anastasia “Stacy” Iselin, of Jacksonville, and Meagan Unverdorben, of Crystal River. Iselin was used as a role-player last year, but she was the Raiders’ third-leading hitter during the fall, and Miller says she is playing with a lot of confidence. Unverdorben is capable of hitting with power to all parts of the field, and she has the potential to provide the most strength for the lineup.

 “If someone is hitting well, they’ll play,” Miller says. “We’re looking for consistency in the lineup, so if anyone gets hot, we’ll find a place on the field.”

On the Mound

The top two pitchers during the fall were both freshmen – right-handers Stephanie Adkins, of Orlando, and Cailey Chevrier, of Clermont – which bodes well for the future of the program.

“They were both highly recruited players out of high school, so we were expecting them to step up and provide support right away,” Miller says. “They’re not going to give up a lot of runs.”

The pitching rotation will be filled out with a bit more experience from sophomores Ashlynn Johnson, of Hudson, and Kaylin Santiago, of Orlando.

Behind the Plate

Three freshmen will see time behind the plate for the Raiders, including Abbie Millett, of Jacksonville. Miller describes Millett as a smart player behind the plate and a strong addition on offense.

“She’s a very good all-around catcher,” Miller says. “She’ll give us good presence behind the plate and some versatility in the outfield if we need it. She hits the ball well, so she’s also an important offensive player for us.”

Catchers Bailey Knoch, of Clermont, and Ariana Urbaez, of Orlando, both bring good defensive skills and strong arms to the position, and Urbaez has the capability to be a presence in the middle of the offensive lineup with her bat, Miller says.

Infield

The Raiders’ biggest strengths will be manning the middle of the diamond, with the second base and shortstop positions being filled by experienced players who have proven their abilities. First-team All-MFC second baseman Skip Williams returns to anchor the team’s most experienced unit, along with 2013 FCSAA All-Tournament selection and All-MFC honorable mention Haley Brown at shortstop.

“Those two are the heart and soul of this team,” Miller says. “Skip is a great all-around player, and Haley is our returning leading batter, so she can give us some offense along with everything else.”

There may be some shuffling around the infield to accommodate batting lineups, but first base will likely be shared by sophomores Meagan Unverdorben and Anastasia “Stacy” Iselin. Freshman Rachel Minier, of Orlando, will cover third base. Minier led the team in doubles during the fall exhibition season.

“Rachel might have the best softball instincts on the team,” Miller says. “No one on the team will out-hustle her. She leads by example.”

Outfield

Perhaps the team’s biggest question mark is the outfield, although Miller sees that more as an opportunity to foster talent and competition than a hindrance.

“The outfield is very unproven, all freshmen,” she says. “But they’re fast, and they’re motivated. They need to see some competition. It will take game experience before they are ready.”

Ashley Sims, who will anchor center field, will provide leadership for the outfield. She is quick to the ball and can cover a lot of ground, Miller says. The rest of the outfield will be platooned by freshmen Siara Simmons, of Orlando; Samantha Forsberg, of Oviedo; and Lindsey Hinerman, of Ocala.

“Which player sees the field will mostly depend on who is swinging the hot stick at the time,” Miller says.

Freshmen Ariel Oglesby, of Belleview, and Taylor Duggan, of Jacksonville, will provide depth to the outfield. The converted middle infielders were moved back because of their athleticism and speed.

Season at a Glance

The season began with the JUCO Kickoff Classic in Clearwater on Feb. 1, and in nine games so far this season, the Raiders are off to a 5-4 start. Early struggles are not unexpected for such a young team, Miller says. The first three games came against competition ranked in the top 10 in the FCSAA’s preseason poll, and one team was ranked in the National Junior College Athletic Association's (NJCAA) national poll.

But even against stiff competition, Miller expects that the Raiders will have the kinks worked out in time for the conference slate.

They’ll get a big opportunity Feb. 28-March 2 at the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) Junior College Leadoff Classic in Columbus, Ga. The invite-only tournament, which takes place in the stadium used during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, will feature 24 marquee teams from around the country (including four from Florida), and will finish less than a week before conference play begins.

“The NFCA tournament will give us a chance to see just how well everything is working against tough competition from around the country,” Miller says. “If we can hold our own in that tournament, we’ll be ready for conference play.”

The MFC schedule this season begins with a home doubleheader March 8 against Florida State College at Jacksonville, and it includes many key games against strong contenders for the FCSAA championship. The Raiders play 2013 state runner-up Santa Fe College in Gainesville March 18 and at home April 12; and they face off against College of Central Florida, a state semifinalist, in Ocala March 11 and at home April 5. Seminole State also faces conference rival and perennial MFC title contender Daytona State at home March 22 and in Daytona Beach April 15.

With such a strong conference, the Raiders have a long road ahead of them to make the postseason. But Miller has confidence that they will be prepared to play when it matters most.

“If our pitching holds up and we can find some consistent offense, we’ll be OK,” she says. “We won’t be perfect right away, but once we have time to get settled in, we’ll be OK.”

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. You also can follow the Raiders with game summaries and photos on the team’s Facebook page.

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