Numbers can be made to say many things, but in the case of the Florida Southern Moccasins, there is a list of them that show an unmistakable upward trend. Over the last three years, the team batting average has climbed each season and was up to .290 last year, its best in seven years. The team scoring average has also been steadily climbing, increasing by 48 percent over the last three years, while the ERA has dropped by a full run per game. Strikeouts at the plate are down by 30 percent, and the pitching staff is walking 33 percent fewer batters. That translates into more productive at-bats for the hitters, less stress for the pitchers, and to no one's surprise, more wins for the team. Nevertheless, while all of those numbers show the Moccasins are headed in the right direction, head coach Chris Bellotto would remind everyone involved there is still room for improvement.
Last year, the Moccasins finished three spots higher in the Sunshine State Conference standings than they were picked to finish and had five one-run or extra-inning losses in conference play. That shows how close the Moccasins were to being right there among the contenders in a conference that sent three of its top four teams to the NCAA Tournament and is typically among the best Division II softball leagues in the country. So while they may not have been there in 2018, the improvement Bellotto is seeking would push the Moccasins into that group of contenders in 2019.
One year after having the least experienced pitching staff in the conference, Florida Southern is one of three SSC teams to return all of its pitching in 2019, and Bellotto has high expectations for that group. Their 2.30 ERA ranked 29th nationally out of 283 teams, and they allowed two earned runs or less in 32 of 48 games. By way of comparison, that was a better percentage than national champion Southern Indiana and South Region champion Saint Leo. Every member of the staff made major contributions throughout the season, and they'll be asked to do the same this year.
Junior Kristen Beacham and senior Kelli Gault have given Florida Southern 26 wins over the last two seasons after joining the Moccasins in 2017 behind two established seniors, and taking on bigger roles last year. Beacham is a 2-time SSC Pitcher-of-the-Week who was 9-5 with two saves and a 1.65 ERA. She led the team in wins, ERA, innings pitched (101.2) and strikeouts (75) while opponents hit just .218 against her. Beacham provided the Mocs with their biggest win of the season when she blanked No. 4 Palm Beach Atlantic on three hits. Gault was 7-8 with two saves and a 2.65 ERA while tossing 95.0 innings and making a team-high 18 starts in the circle. She had some remarkable games that included a no-hitter against Wheeling Jesuit, and a win on the road with 6.2 innings against No. 15 West Florida. Gault started and pitched at least 4.2 innings in five of Florida Southern's 10 shutouts, and went two scoreless innings to complete another.
Senior Aubrey Ehlers joined the Mocs last year as a transfer and went 5-4 with three saves in 80.2 innings. Her 2.00 ERA ranked eighth in the SSC, one spot behind Beacham, and she led the team with 28 appearances in the circle. If she wasn't the best reliever in the conference, then she was at least close. With the Mocs making many of their pitching changes by design, Ehlers was usually the first choice out of the bullpen and led the SSC with a team-record 22 relief outings. (The rest of the team had 23). She had a 1.41 ERA in that role and got the Mocs through some tight spots, including once as an emergency starter when she tossed a complete game to complete a sweep of Barry.
Sophomore Jenna Weldon had the fewest innings (48.2) and appearances (17) but still turned them into a 6-4 record with one save while also starting 23 games at third base. She had the team's longest scoreless inning streak, became the first freshman in team history to pitch a perfect game (March 5 vs. Chestnut Hill), and was second in the SSC in strikeouts per game at 6.76. Her innings may be determined by how often she's needed at third. She figures to be a big part of the offense either way after hitting .275 with 20 RBI and a team-leading five home runs as a freshman.
Senior Zierra Flodman is back behind the plate and will likely complete her career as only the second four-year starting catcher the Mocs have ever had. Flodman has gotten better every year and made the All-SSC Team last season for the second year in a row. She picked up right where she left off as a sophomore when she hit .317 over the final two months by hitting .321 last year. She was second on the team with 24 RBI, tied for second with nine doubles, and never went more than two games without a hit. Bellotto singled out her leadership as an important part of the team's make-up.
If Flodman needs time off behind the plate, Bellotto has several options that include freshmen Beka Schulte and Maddi Conner. Schulte is from nearby Plant City and hit .424 with three home runs and 21 RBI as a high school senior at Plant City High School. She's an outstanding defensive player too and helped the Raiders reach the 2017 state semifinals. Conner hit over .600 with 51 RBI as a junior and senior at Fort Lauderdale's Westminster Academy. She also had 38 extra-base hits during those seasons and could be a factor at first base too.
Florida Southern has two returning co-starters at third base in Weldon and sophomore Kensie Green. Weldon also pitched, Green was occasionally used as a catcher, and both got plenty of at-bats as the designated player. Green started 38 games overall and could fill more than one role again this year after batting .302 with nine doubles, one home run and 20 RBI. She missed time in the middle of last season due to injury, but was the Mocs' second leading hitter over the final 10 games.
Though Weldon and Green combined to start 41 games at third base last year, one of this year's newcomers is in the mix at that position too. Freshman Celia Higgins has looked very good in the preseason and Bellotto was quick to praise her play on defense. Higgins helped her travel ball team win the 2017 ASA Gold 16U national championship, and hit .417 with 17 extra-base hits in her final season at Strawberry Crest High School.
Across the diamond at first, senior Jessica Traña put together the best season of her career with a .349 batting average, 15 doubles and a team-high 26 RBI. Her consistency at the plate throughout the season was similar to that of Flodman. Only twice did Traña go two games in a row without a hit, and in one of those instances she still drove in two runs. Traña was every bit as deserving of a spot on the all-conference team as the two first basemen who actually made it, and the Mocs need her at that level again.
Senior Makayla Deuberry played every inning at shortstop last year and makes the type of highlight plays in the field that few players at her position can duplicate. Her defensive ability was already well-established when the year began after she led SSC shortstops in fielding percentage as a sophomore, but she also took another step forward offensively as a junior. Deuberry had more hits (31) and RBI (14) last year than her first two seasons combined and led the team in walks, but it was more than that. It seemed like every time the Moccasins had to have a big hit in the late innings Deuberry came through for them. As evidence of that, she was a .419 hitter from the sixth inning forward.
Deuberry's partner at second base for most of the season was Alex Mace, who is now a junior with 79 career starts between second, first, catcher and designated player. An All-SSC selection as a DP in 2017, Mace was tied for second on the team last year with nine doubles and drove in 14 runs. The Moccasins need her to play at the same level she did over the second half of her freshman year when her .346 average in SSC play and .387 average with runners in scoring position landed her a spot on the all-conference team.
The Moccasins' only other returning infielder is sophomore Shannon Reilly who played in 12 games last year with four starts, but all of her playing time came as a designated player or as the team's number one pinch-hitter. She's been working at third base this year after previously playing as a middle infielder with multiple all-star honors as a junior and senior shortstop at Atlantic High School.
The veteran middle infielders have competition this year from junior college transfer Meghan Sexton. Sexton was a 2-time all-conference selection at Florida's Seminole State College who led them to more than 50 wins in each of her two seasons there. She was a career .379 hitter at the junior college level, and as a sophomore hit .410 with 14 home runs, 40 RBI, and 15 steals.
Florida Southern graduated a pair of all-conference outfielders in 2018 SSC Player-of-the-Year and batting champion Shannon Bell, and Desirae Klumpp. That leaves sophomore Lindsey Wilson as the lone returning full-time starter, though senior Annemarie Tracey has made 19 starts between the outfield and designated player in her career. Regardless, the loss of Bell and Klumpp leave two big holes to fill. They hit .407 and .345 respectively last year as two of the top three hitters on the team, and they combined for just four errors in two years in center and left.
Wilson started 43 games in right as a freshman and hit .233 with two doubles and eight RBI. More importantly, she hit .360 with runners in scoring position, an average that was the second highest in the SSC among freshmen, trailing only Weldon, who hit .371 in those situations. Wilson also led the Moccasin outfielders with five outfield assists and committed just one error.
Tracey has been reliable in whatever role she has played over the last three seasons and has played in 89 games during that time. She's been outstanding on defense when called upon and her speed has made her a valuable asset as a pinch-runner too. Her biggest moment last year though came at the plate when she drove in the only run of the night to make sure Gault got a win in her no-hitter against Wheeling Jesuit. Sophomore Samantha Prosser is another returning outfielder who hit nearly .500 in her final two seasons in high school and was one of the Moccasins' top runners as a freshman.
It's possible the Moccasins could have two freshmen in the outfield this year too. Taylor Davis, who has played shortstop, was an all-area selection for Palmetto High School who played her travel ball for Florida Select Tampa. Jadin Dewith is coming off a senior year at Carrboro High School in North Carolina in which she hit .544 and swiped 41 bases to push her career high school total up to 90 steals.
Florida Southern starts the season on Monday, February 4 with a doubleheader against Ursuline (Ohio), which marks the first of 46 games for the Moccasins in 2019. They'll play 25 of those at Chris Bellotto Field, including three-game conference series against South Region champion Saint Leo and NCAA Tournament participant Embry-Riddle. The Moccasins will also host two non-conference opponents that reached NCAA postseason play when Hillsdale (Mich.) and Minnesota-Duluth visit in mid-March. Hillsdale won the Great Midwest Athletic Conference and Minnesota-Duluth finished as the Central Region runner-up.