OCALA--The College of Central Florida softball team opens up the 2018 season on the road at the JUCO Kickoff Classic in Clearwater on Friday. The Patriots will play six games in two days.
CF enters the season at No. 16 in the NJCAA Div. I Preseason Softball Rankings. The Patriots have a winning pedigree under head coach Kevin Fagan, who has won over 80 percent of his games in his four years as head coach at CF, and this year's squad hopes to continue the program's winning ways.
In past years, Fagan has relied heavily on seasoned veterans to help guide the ship, but this season will be a little different.
"We are excited (for the season), we feel like we have a very athletic bunch ... but we are young," said Fagan, who enters his fifth season at the helm. "On any given day we can start seven to nine freshmen so it will be challenging from that standpoint. Not a lot of game experience, but overall it is probably the most athletic group we have here."
Fagan touched on the athleticism of his middle infield, noting it is probably the most athletic middle infield to date.
"Everyone is going to notice our shortstop," said Fagan. "Takiya London is 6-foot-3, very athletic and fast...just a very special player.
"Gretchen Ebert is an excellent second baseman. Both (London and Ebert) have very strong arms so we will turn a lot of double plays this season."
The outfield will look a little different this year without two-year starter and NJCAA All-American Kelsee Cullop anchoring center field.
"Last year we had a very good outfield," said Fagan. "This year they are good, they just don't have a lot of experience ... so we'll see how things shake out."
Offensively, the Patriot line up will have a new look as CF's top five hitters have graduated. Caley Nix, Tiffani Railey, Brooke Barlow, Destinee Lizzmore and Cullop collectively averaged .424 at the plate, while driving in 247 runs and crushing 38 home runs.
In the circle, a pair of returners will lead the way for two newcomers.
"Morgan Cushman, our ace from last year, is back. (She had) twenty-five game winners last year. Excellent pitcher ... she's going to provide the stability and experience in the circle," said Fagan of his league leading pitcher who finished second in the state for most wins in a season.
"We also have returner Lindsay Markham, a 6-foot-3 power pitcher ... throws 65-68 mph. She's going to do some nice things this year."
CF will play a tough two-day schedule to kick off the season. On Friday, the Patriots will take on Northwest Florida State College, Polk State College and ABAC. Saturday will feature games against Tallahassee Community College, Pasco-Hernando State College, and Eastern Florida State College.The JUCO Kickoff Classic is just the start of one of the toughest schedules in Region VIII.
"We play the best of the best," said Fagan. "We will play Salt Lake City at the Chipola tournament ... and of course Chipola and Florida Southwestern who represented our region at the national tournament last year.
"And our own conference (Mid-Florida Conference) is the strongest in the state... (We have) a packed schedule full of a lot of challenges, but we are excited. We want to play the best."
The Ocala community will get its first glimpse of the 2018 squad when the Patriots host HCC in the home opener doubleheader on Jan. 30 at 2 and 4 p.m. Click here for complete 2018 softball schedule.