GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Decisions, decisions. Florida’s softball coaches can’t wait to be confronted by them.
The tougher, the better.
The Gators surprised the Southeastern Conference last season because they could manufacture runs and lean on the pitching of All-American Hannah Rogers, who went 33-7 with a 1.71 ERA, and the fiery Lauren Haeger, who was 16-2 with a 2.35 ERA. Both are back this season from a team that finished 58-9, won the league regular-season and tournament titles, and reached the Women’s College World Series.
But the Gators also added freshman Delanie Gourley, one of the most dominant pitchers in California prep history. She’s left-handed and throws a change-up that can separate hitters from their spikes. Gourley is going to throw a bunch of innings this season.
But who’s going to pitch and when?
Or put another away: Which of them is not?
UF assistant Jen Rocha smiled at the question.
“We have good problems,” she said.
The managing of them, for real, begins Thursday night when fourth-ranked Florida opens the 2014 season with a game at No. 25 South Florida, followed by five weekend games in the USF-hosted Wilson-DeMarini Invitational at Tampa this weekend.
UF coach Tim Walton will give his incumbent star, Rogers, the first start of the season, but may take a look at all three of his mound aces during the game.
His is the kind of dilemma any coach would appreciate having. Compare it to the dilemmas opposing hitters will face when stepping into the box against the Gators; not to mention the preparation opposing staffs will need to invest just to get their teams ready to face a trio of arms so radically different.
“You can watch all the video you want, but now you have to watch three times as much for a No. 1 pitcher because we have three of them,” Walton said. “In the past, it’s been two, really. And, frankly, they’ve probably focused almost exclusively on Hannah.”
Do so now at your own peril.
Rogers is the 5-foot-10 right-handed senior who ranks second on the school’s all-time wins list with 97. She’s got speed, around 67 mph, and works the plate side to side in a very stoic manner.
Haeger’s is an inch taller than Rogers, has similar speed, but works the plate vertically. She’s also very vocal and emotional from the mound.
And then there’s Gourley, who goes a mere 5-4 -- so her ball is really on the rise -- and comes at the hitter from that unique left-hand side. Gourley has the velocity of Rogers, but also a change-up that drops in around 49 mph. Both Walton and Rocha say her delivery on those two pitches is identical, which means she has two strikeout pitches. Good luck with that, hitters. Her arsenal was good enough to strike out a California state record 1,352 batters during her career and lead Lakeside El Capitan to a state championship.
“All of them throw at pretty much the same speed,” Rocha said. “But the way they look, the way the ball comes at you, is very, very different.”
Haeger not only was the team’s No. 2 pitcher last year, but finished third in batting average (.319) and led the club in homers (18) and RBI (70). She understands the art of being a pitcher, but also knows how to stare one down.
So she can appreciate the flexibility of the Florida staff.
“As a hitter, if you switch pitchers often, it’s really tough to adjust,” Haeger said. “I think it can only work to our advantage.”
The Gators were a terrific defensive team a year ago and return all but one starter in the field. Walton believes they can be even better in the this season. He’s certain they’re going to be better on the mound.
Florida often struggled with the bats in 2013, especially in situation hitting, but Walton is convinced the Gators will improve that element of play this season for the simple fact opponents will struggle from the plate too.
If his team isn’t chasing runs, his batters will swing more freely, more confidently.
“It takes a lot of pressure off,” he said. “You know the pitching staff is going to keep you in games.”
Walton doesn’t think the Gators will be in many shootouts. Not with his defense and not with the trio of options he’s armed with.
He doesn’t mind saying so, either.
“This is as good as any pitching staff we’ve ever had because each one compliments the other,” Walton said. “That makes you feel good.”
Great, actually. Such is life when your problems are “good problems.”