The St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational is an early season softball tournament that is presented by ESPN Events. This year was the inaugural season for the tournament. The Invitational featured 16 teams. The teams were (Coaches Poll ranks in parentheses): (1) Florida State, (3) Oklahoma, (6) Tennessee, (8) LSU, (11) Texas, (18) Kentucky, (19) Oregon, (20) Oklahoma State, (23) James Madison, (27) Minnesota, (29) California, (31) Notre Dame, (32) Ohio State, (34) Hofstra, (38) Utah, and Florida Atlantic. As you can see the field was stacked.
The Invitational just ended on Sunday but by all indications it was a big success. Coaches love it because it allows them to measure their teams against top competition. It also allows them to play outside in February which the weather often doesn’t allow them to do especially if they are from northern parts of the country. Judging by attendance fans loved it as well. Many of the sessions were sold out and there are already discussions about adding seating for next year. Finally, it was great for the sport of softball in general because it provided excellent exposure on ESPN and the games were generally entertaining.
Florida State also benefited. The format was ideal for Florida State for a number of reasons. First, it was held in the greater Tampa Bay area which means that FSU enjoyed a de facto home field advantage. There was a great amount of attendance from Seminole Nation at all of FSU’s games. Secondly, it was great for the Noles to be able to play (and do so well) in an area known to be a hotbed for recruiting. Third, FSU had the chance to play a number of highly ranked teams. This will help Florida State’s strength of schedule and therefore the RPI will benefit. These games will look good to the Committee when it determines seeding for the NCAA Tournament. Finally, the Seminoles had the opportunity to test themselves against top competition. These games were measuring stick games and it is always helpful to have a chance to learn about your team early in the season.
Even if you didn’t watch the games you can probably deduce that FSU did well from the title of this article. Florida State went undefeated (6-0) during the tournament. The tournament started (for FSU) on Friday morning. The Noles faced Ohio State and won 3-1. Friday afternoon FSU beat Oklahoma 7-4. Saturday afternoon FSU defeated LSU 9-1 in six innings. Saturday evening the Noles walloped Minnesota 17-6. Finally, on Sunday afternoon FSU took down Florida Atlantic 10-5. Sunday night, in the final game of the Invitational, the Seminoles beat Tennessee 5-2. FSU is now undefeated on the season at 11-0.
FSU was the only team in the tournament to play six games. Florida State was the only team to go through the tournament undefeated. The Noles also played the toughest schedule of any team facing all of the other top 10 teams participating. The Noles trailed only once all tournament; in the third inning against Oklahoma but they scored twice in the fourth and never trailed again.
Let’s discuss what we learned over the weekend.
Reasons for Optimism
This team is really good.
I’m not sure if the Noles will repeat as National Champions again because the NCAA Tournament is a bit of a crapshoot. However, I am sure that they have as good a chance as any team the nation.
Based on this weekend we have to begin with the offense. FSU hit 15 homeruns over the six games (41 innings). The homeruns were hit by nine different players which indicates that the Noles have pop throughout the lineup. The offense was simply spectacular this weekend.
The lineup was remarkably stable: (1) Cali Harrod ss, (2) Carsyn Gordon 1b, (3) Sydney Sherrill 3b, (4) Elizabeth Mason rf, (5) Anna Shelnutt c, (6) Dani Morgan cf, (7) Zoe Casas lf, (8) Cassidy Davis dp, (9) Leslie Farris or Morgan Noah 2b (platoon). There are no breaks for the opposing pitcher in that lineup. FSU isn’t going to hit 15 homeruns every weekend but that lineup will be a challenge for any team that the Noles face this year.
For the first time in her career Meghan King is the unquestioned ace of this staff. As she proved in the postseason last year, the redshirt senior has matured into one of the best pitchers in the nation. This weekend she faced Ohio State, LSU and Tennessee going 19 innings and giving up 4 earned runs (1.89 ERA) with 24 strikeouts. She was only in real trouble once in the entire tournament (the fourth inning against Tennessee) but Dani Morgan had her back. It was a great follow up to her virtuoso Women’s College World Series performance.
The defense was generally good this weekend. Obviously Morgan’s incredible catch referenced above will get the headlines (it was #3 on ESPN’s top plays) but FSU only committed five errors in the tournament. There are quite a few players in different positions this year so only having five errors is not bad.
Reasons for Concern
Florida State just basically blew away one of the toughest fields in softball this side of the WCWS. There really aren’t any big reasons for concern based on this impressive performance unless you engage in serious nitpicking. So let’s label the next section:
The number two pitcher behind King is a bit unsettled. In order to feel good about their chances to repeat the Noles will have to find reliable help for King on the pitching staff. The good news is that there is certainly talent available. The contenders for the second spot on the staff are Cassidy Davis, Kathryn Sandercock, Kara Bilodeau and Makinzy Herzog. Based on this weekend the jury is still out on the freshman Herzog who didn’t play due to an ankle injury and Bilodeau (transfer from Auburn) who only pitched three innings. Davis is a junior and she is more of a known commodity for FSU. She pitched well this weekend going five innings and giving up five earned runs. Sandercock was a 5-star recruit and she showed her talent this weekend. She went 14 innings and gave up four earned runs (2.57 ERA). That was an impressive performance for a true freshman against this kind of competition. It’s still a bit early to predict who head coach Lonni Alameda will eventually tap to be the #2 on this staff but based on what we saw this weekend FSU will have talent to choose from when making the decision.
As discussed earlier, FSU was good (not great) defensively this weekend. There were some mistakes in the field but they didn’t hurt the Noles due to the offensive explosion and the generally excellent pitching. To be sure the Seminoles delivered some web gems (Dani Morgan’s catch and a great diving catch from Elizabeth Mason were two examples) but there were mistakes as well.
The Noles featured a lineup with eight and a half returning players. The half refers to the fact that there was a platoon at second base for most of the weekend. Freshman Morgan Noah started for most of the weekend but she was replaced in the middle of the game by junior Leslie Farris. However, Noah had a couple of issues in the field against Florida Atlantic and Alameda went with Farris for the entire game against Tennessee. Sydney Sherrill was the regular second baseman last year but with the graduation of Jessie Warren she has moved to third leaving second base a bit unsettled. Going forward FSU will have to decide whether to continue with the platoon or choose Farris or Noah to be the regular at second base.
This was an extremely successful weekend for FSU. The Noles were able to play well in front of a national audience earning wins while playing an exciting brand of softball. Of course the wins are the most important thing and getting three top 10 victories will look mighty good to the committee. At 11-0 this season is off to a very strong start. It won’t be easy but based on this weekend Florida State appears to have the goods to mount a very strong run at a repeat National title.
Florida State will welcome South Alabama to the Seminole Softball Complex on Wednesday. The first pitch will be at 6pm.