OCALA-- In just one season under head coach Kevin Fagan, the College of Central Florida softball team made an impact on the national scene.
After never qualifying for the NJCAA National Tournament in team history, the Patriots went all the way to the national championship game, before coming up just short with the game-winning run at the plate in the finals against Angelina (Tex.).
CF also posted its highest finish ever at state (second), won the Atlantic District Tournament and played for the state title for the first time in school history.
In the Mid-Florida Conference, the Patriots also earned their highest finish in school history (second) and were able to beat rival Santa Fe College multiple times in a season for the first time ever.
The big win for the Patriots over SFC was an 8-7 win in 11 innings in the winner's bracket of the Atlantic District Tournament. The loss sent SFC into an elimination game, while CF downed then national No. 1 Indian River State to advance to nationals.
Led by Florida State signee Amy Szymanowski, the state's career home run leader, the Patriots got everyone's best despite not having the postseason success as some others in the state.
"I don't think we snuck up on anyone," Fagan said. "Everyone knew what we had and that we were going to be improved.
"The bull's eye is bigger this year, but people knew the type of talent that we had.
"This year, I feel that we have a chance to be better at almost every position."
CF hit a school-record 72 home runs and .329 as a team, but it can play small ball if needed this time around.
"One of the differences you will see in this team is that we are going run the bases better," Fagan said. "It's not just our speed. We are going to make less mistakes.
"Plus, I feel this is a faster team, but overall, we still have a lot of power in our lineup and I feel good about what we have."
This season, CF will face defending state champion Tallahassee, Polk State and Miami Dade during the regular season. Couple that with the always-tough Mid-Florida Conference schedule and a trip to the Panhandle Classic, the Patriots will be battle-tested when it comes down to crunch time.
"I want to play the best people possible at all times," Fagan said. "Even going back to my days at Dunnellon (High School), I tried to play the toughest schedule that I could possibly play because in the end it is going to make your team better.
"This year, we maxed out our schedule (at 63 games) and we are going to three tournaments, so we will have the chance to see some people (in the Panhandle) that we normally wouldn't see (during the regular season)."
Pitching-wise, the Patriots allowed their opponents to hit just .228 last season and posted a 1.53 ERA. Taylor Bowen and Jamie Nelson, who combined to go 37-9 last season have graduated, but Autumn Hanners, the hero in the circle during the postseason, is back.
Hanners went 8-5 with eight saves last season, but went the distance in the 11-inning win over Santa Fe and won three straight games at the national tournament to put the Patriots in position for the national title.
Joining Hanners in the circle is Holly McKinnon, a transfer from South Alabama. McKinnon was an all-state performer at North Marion High School and played travel ball for Fagan.
"There aren't too many teams in the country that have a 1-2 punch like we have," Fagan said.
In the field, Louisville signee Jordan Lane leads the way at shortstop. Lane hit the game-tying home run that forced extra innings against Santa Fe. She earned all-state honors after hitting .374 with six homers and 41 RBI.
O'Steen, meanwhile, hit .377 last season and ripped a team-high 17 doubles. She was the top hitter for the Patriots during the postseason with a 21-for-45 effort, including a 9-for-24 mark at nationals.
At first base, O'Steen will share duties with Hanners, who hit .326 with 10 homers and 47 RBI.
CF must replace Jessica Nathan at second base, but sophomore Nicole White saw valuable playing time last season and batted .275.
Also returning for CF in the infield is Taylor Morrow, a third baseman, who hit .339 with four homers and 32 RBI.
The Patriots have stockpiled excellent depth and have several newcomers challenging to play. Kaylee Smith (SS), Tiona Hill (3B), and Deeandreaya Davis (2B) are in the mix for starting roles in the infield.
The outfield is also strong, led by returning starter Cheyenne Blaha, who had 13 hits in the postseason and smacked two homers at nationals. Blaha will start in left, while newcomers Mariah Wise (CF), Edrienne Williams (RF), and Sarah Heimbach (RF) also look to contribute.
The strong freshman class put together by Fagan and assistant coach Mike Lingle has been a good fit with the returning players.
"Overall, we are pretty sound," Fagan said. "Plus, a big thing is that the girls get along. We've got good team chemistry and that is something you can build on."
CF opens play on Saturday with three games in the JUCO Kickoff Classic in Clearwater. The Patriots will face Wallace State (Ala.) at 11 a.m., followed by Hillsborough Community College (3:30 p.m.), and Gulf Coast State (5:40 p.m.). On Sunday, they will close out the classic with Georgia Perimeter (9 a.m.) and Georgia Military College (11 a.m.).
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