The University of West Florida softball team opens the 2018 season this weekend, ranked third nationally in NCAA Division II, and picked to win the Gulf South Conference.
The Argonauts garnered 10 of 14 first-place votes in the GSC coaches’ poll. Valdosta State, Mississippi College, Alabama-Huntsville and North Alabama round out the top five. Lee, which met UWF in the South Super Regional last year, came in at number six.
“We’re excited; it’s quickly approaching and I think we’re ready,” said Head Coach Melissa Paul, who begins her fourth season at West Florida.
The team’s coming off a 46-15 record in 2017, finishing second in the conference and ranked fifth nationally, after reaching the NCAA Championship for the third time in program history.
“Our early-season schedule, our first couple of weekends, we’ve got some good competition,” said Paul. “But I think those first couple of weekends we’re really focused on us and figuring out our rotations, especially with our pitching and catching.”
First up for West Florida is the Gulf Coast Invitational in Gulf Shores, Friday through Sunday. Nova Southeastern, Saint Leo, Tuskegee, Eckerd and North Georgia are also in the tournament.
“We’re trying not to focus too much on who we’re playing, especially that first weekend out; really kind of focusing on ourselves,” Paul said. “I think we got caught up in the past in who our competitor was and trying to match up with them instead of focusing on who we are and what we’re going to be about these first couple of weekends, and trying to figure out who our best nine are.”
After the tourney, the Argos hit the road for all of February, with stops in West Palm Beach; Fort Lauderdale, and Miami, along with Montgomery and Florence, Alabama. The home opener is March 3rd, a doubleheader against Union.
“St. Leo, they’re a postseason team; North Georgia, they always get some big time [Southeastern Conference] transfers so they’re always going to be tough,” said Paul. “And then making that long trip down to south Florida that second weekend is going to be a challenge for us. We’ve got Palm Beach; Berry and Nova down there as well.”
Paul is placing a lot of the upcoming season on the right arm of senior pitcher Sara Maloney, who was 15-4 with a 2.15 earned run average last season.
“Sara has some postseason experience, and she did well in the regionals and the World Series,” Paul said. “Whether she can go the distance, that’s what we’re trying to figure out now. We want to make sure she can win a lot of postseason games for us, but we’ve got to make it through a [regular] season in a tough conference.”
Maloney will get help on the mound from junior Tori Perkins, a Pensacola native and transfer from Alabama-Birmingham.
“[At] UAB, I just got very homesick,” Perkins said. “And I decided I did want to come home and be close to the family. And UWF was a great fit, especially the coaches. It’s just very exciting to be back and represent my hometown.”
UWF lost six players from last year to graduation, but returns 11 letter winners for 2018. Coach Melissa Paul no doubt is hoping to avoid the slow start that they experienced last season – but perhaps looks to a repeat of the 17-game conference winning streak that rebounded them to the postseason.