Brombacher tough enough to lead Florida
Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2011 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his top 20. Check back daily for updates.
No. 7 Florida
Last season: 49-10, lost in Women's College World Series
Who returns: The list of returnees includes three players who slugged better than .700 in full-time duty last season and six who managed on-base percentages of .400 or better. In other words, there is some talent on hand. Kelsey Bruder (1.172 OPS), Megan Bush (1.160 OPS),Tiffany DeFelice (1.063 OPS) and Aja Paculba (1.021) are proven run producers, but sophomore Brittany Schutte might just be the best of the bunch. As a freshman, Schutte's 19 home runs and 1.237 OPS led the Gators, and she was up for the challenge in her first taste of softball in Oklahoma City.
Who departs: Francesca Enea left Gainesville in possession of the all-time and single-season school records in home runs and won't be an easy bat to replace. But less-heralded third baseman Corrie Brooks routinely earned praise from coach Tim Walton as a cornerstone. After starting 48 games as a freshman, shortstop Brittany Walker transferred to Texas A&M.
Who arrives: Kasey Fagan, the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a senior in high school, could play third base, outfield or designated hitter on a given day, but she will play something. The only one of Florida's four freshmen from out of state, Cheyenne Coyle keeps the California pipeline open and is penciled in at shortstop. Hannah Rogers arrives in the circle and will likely serve as the staff's No. 2 pitcher behind Stephanie Brombacher. Junior-college transfer Ashley Snedeker arrives after two successful seasons at Yavapai College.
Statistically speaking: The 10 Floridians on the rosters are the most since 2006, Walton's first season in Gainesville.
Preseason question: Is any pitcher tougher than Stephanie Brombacher?
Granted, any pitcher would find it nice to have an offense behind her that puts up runs like a certain former Heisman-winning quarterback used to put up touchdowns in Gainesville. And yes, some will suggest Brombacher had a hand, or perhaps a foot, in her own uncomfortable role as one of the central figures in the illegal-pitch controversy that prevailed last postseason.
But those stipulations aside, there is a strong case to be made that Brombacher mixed mental fortitude with wicked movement better than just about anyone last season.
All she had to do last season was replace Stacey Nelson, the smiling Californian who guided the Gators to the championship series in Oklahoma City by allowing a grand total of 25 earned runs in 285.1 innings as a senior in 2009. And as if to make her task that much more interesting, Brombacher then lost her first start last season after going 42-0 in two seasons as Nelson's understudy.
She didn't lose many more, finishing with a 35-8 record and a 2.01 ERA in 226.1 innings. And when all that work seemed to come undone in Florida's opening game of the World Series, a 16-3 loss to UCLA in which Brombacher was called for four illegal pitches and exited in the third inning, she turned around and threw a shutout in an elimination game against Missouri two days later and gave her team a chance to compete against a hot-hitting Georgia team that night.
"I thought she handled herself very well," Walton said. "For any pitcher on that stage, under that microscope and to get that kind of result, I mean, you're for sure going to see a kid just buckle and start crying and just give in. And I don't think she gave in at all."
Part of that comes from, as her coach described it, learning to control what she can control when it comes to concentration in the circle if the calls start coming. But controlling the source of the problem remains a priority.
"We call every illegal pitch in practice," Walton said. "When she's illegal in practice, we call it. When she's legal in practice, we don't call it. I just know this fall has been the best she's been at keeping her foot on the ground. It's been the best that she's been -- she's throwing harder now. She's the one at a disadvantage the way she throws an illegal pitch, so if we can get her more legal, she's going to throw harder, have more movement and probably end up being a better pitcher."
The Gators don't need Brombacher to be Nelson in order to win the championship the latter came so close to clinching. In getting back to the World Series last year, team and pitcher proved they can do just fine with Brombacher being herself.
"I'll be honest with you, I was more proud of that team last year than any team I've coached because we got over a hump," Walton said. "Some teams can get to the World Series two years and you can go, 'Oh, well they had a great pitcher.' We went to the College World Series with another pitcher. I think that's huge."
Florida's 2009 season was a tough act to follow, but as it turns out, Brombacher does tough pretty well.