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Gators sophomore second baseman Kelsey Stewart is an effective weapon at the top of Florida's lineup.

Thursday February 27, 2014Stewart Fuels No. 1-Ranked Gators at Top of Order

Gators sophomore second baseman Kelsey Stewart is an effective weapon at the top of Florida's lineup.

By Michelle Provenzano Writing Intern

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Young isn't a word the Florida softball team shies away from.

Instead, the Gators embrace it.

Florida ended its 2013 campaign with a successful 58-9 record, all with 12 underclassmen on the roster.

Now a year later, the Gators’ roster listing nine underclassmen is ranked No. 1 and the team isn’t holding back.

One consistent threat from a year ago is found in sophomore second baseman Kelsey Stewart.

Stewart ended last season with 30 RBIs, 90 hits and 62 runs in the 238 times she batted atop the Gators’ lineup.

But this season Stewart is reaching new heights.

Kelsey Stewart

Stewart has crossed the plate 21 times in Florida’s 16 games, only one less run than Florida’s opponents have combined to score.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Stewart said. “But it’s not just me scoring myself; it’s knowing my teammates are behind me the whole time.

“I didn’t even think about it until I saw it, and I was like ‘wow, that’s crazy.’ It’s just really a confidence boost for our team knowing that when I get on base, they’re going to score me.”

To be the team’s leadoff hitter, there’s an added pressure to be the one to hype up the offense and get it going. Stewart also had a tough act to follow last season with the departure of All-American Michelle Moultrie from the 2012 team.

But Stewart is hardly fazed by the expectations that come with batting leadoff.

“Last year if you would have asked me that, I would have said yes, but no,” Stewart said when asked if she feels added pressure at the top of the order. “It’s just me trying to get my team going.

“If I don’t get it the first time, I have the second at-bat, third at-bat, so really it’s just confidence in my team being behind me the whole time.”

Stewart’s days as the table setter in the leadoff spot started way before she put on the orange and blue uniform.

As a player for the Wichita (Kan.) Mustangs travel team, Stewart excelled as a leadoff hitter.

A .649 batting average, 12 home runs and 65 RBIs were just a few of the eye-opening stats on her card as a senior.

She helped lead the Maize (Kan.) High Eagles to a 22-2 overall season in her final year and gave the team a fighting chance in the state tournament.

And to top off her prolific career from high school to her first campaign with the Gators, Stewart had the opportunity to lead off a few times for the USA Softball Junior Women’s National Team — the team went won the silver medal at the ISF X Jr. Women’s World Championship in July.

“All I did was lead off,” Stewart said. “Nothing has really changed for me. I’ve been lead off my whole life. It’s just my job.”

Getting into the nitty-gritty of the 2014 season, as the Gators head to Orlando to play in the 2014 Diamond 9 Citrus Classic starting Friday, Stewart is one component of a strong lineup of great hitters.

Junior pitcher Lauren Haeger has not only been successful on the mound, but also behind the bat, tied with Stewart for a team-leading 18 RBIs this season.

“Me and Kelsey have always been like — when we need to score a run — she’s like, ‘I’m going to get on, and you’re going to hit me in,’ ” Haeger said. “That’s just kind of how we are.

“We’re always like right there in the lineup to where I know if she gets on, then she’s going to be on second base eventually. I always feel really confident when I see her out there because she’s going to do whatever she can to score.”

Stewart can score. That we know. And you obviously don’t get to 16-0 on a season just by chance.

Haeger and Stewart have dominated since becoming teammates, combining last season to score 104 runs, hit 21 home runs and 100 RBIs.

“I think we work really well together in that part of the lineup,” Haeger said. “We always have. Last year we did. Good for her, good for me, good for everybody that we’re hitting the ball so well.”

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