The St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational is an early season softball tournament that is presented by ESPN Events. This year was the second year for the tournament. The Invitational featured 17 teams. The teams were (Coaches Poll ranks in parentheses): (1) UCLA, (2) Washington, (9) Florida State, (10) Alabama, (14) Oklahoma State, (17) Minnesota, (18) Missouri, (19) Georgia, (20) Texas Tech, (21) James Madison, (22) South Carolina, (24) Virginia Tech, (25) Northwestern, Kansas, Liberty, South Florida, and the US National Team. As you can see the field was very strong.
I wrote the following paragraphs about the Invitational last year and I will reproduce them here because they (mostly) remain true:
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.
As you can see I had to strike through part of the quote from last year. FSU dominated the Invitational last year but they definitely struggled this year. This year the Noles lost to Washington (7-0), Minnesota (7-6), Northwestern (6-2) and UCLA (3-2). Florida State’s only victory in the Invitational was over Liberty (7-1).
Let’s discuss what we learned over the weekend.
Reasons for Optimism
Based on what we saw this weekend there aren’t a whole lot of reasons for optimism but this is still a talented team. This team beat top 10 Alabama twice (before the Invitational) and one of the games was by run rule.
During the Invitational, the best reason for optimism was probably how the Seminoles performed against top ranked UCLA in the final game of the tournament. Coach Lonni Alameda decided to go with a lineup that featured five players who weren’t on the active roster last year (four were freshmen) and she also started with another freshman (Brianna Enter) in the circle. These players, along with the veterans, generally acquitted themselves well. FSU led much of the game and the game winning out was in left fielder Kaley Mudge’s glove but was dislodged when she hit the outfield wall. That let a pair of runs cross for the Bruins and FSU couldn’t respond in the bottom of the seventh.
Another good sign was that Kathryn Sandercock came in for Enter and pitched five strong innings against the Bruins only giving up runs in that last inning.
Alameda was also able to get some valuable experience for the younger players. They were able to play in pressure situations against good teams. This will likely help them later in the season.
Defensively Florida State performed relatively well. FSU only had three errors total in the five games played in the Invitational. That is pretty good especially considering all of the playing time Alameda gave to the younger players.
Even though the Noles went 1-4 during the Invitational, FSU only dropped four spots in the Coaches Poll. That was likely due to the respect the program has along with the level of competition the Seminoles played over the weekend. The coaches believe that this is still a quality team and they are probably right.
Reasons for Concern
After this performance there are a bunch but we will hit the highlights.
First and foremost, Anna Shelnutt’s health is a concern. The senior catcher took a foul ball to the face on Saturday against Northwestern. She fell to the ground in pain and didn’t return. Shelnutt was sent back to Tallahassee a day early for treatment and is set to see a specialist who will determine the level of damage sustained to her orbital bone. Shelnutt is out indefinitely and could possibly miss the rest of the season - or she could come back relatively soon. We don’t know her prognosis right now. However, her loss is quite significant for the team. Freshman Kaia LoPreste will be the starting catcher while Shelnutt recovers. LoPreste’s backup will likely be Chloe Culp or Alameda could decide to move Elizabeth Mason back to catcher from her new position of first base. Mason backed up Shelnutt last year but the coaches don’t really prefer her to play catcher any more.
Another concern is pitching. FSU has enjoyed excellent (dominant) pitching the last few years going back to Lacey Waldrop. Outstanding performances in the circle have been the backbone of FSU’s success as a program. This year is a bit of a transition. Sandercock has the type of talent to follow in the footsteps of Waldrop, Jessica Burroughs, Kylee Hanson and Meghan King. The problem is that she is a sophomore and is still figuring things out. In the past FSU has always had an experienced ace in the rotation so that the younger players had more time to learn and wouldn’t be tasked with pitching as many innings. The Seminoles don’t have this luxury now.
FSU does have senior Caylan Arnold and she has looked good at times. Arnold was great against Northwestern allowing only one earned run in five innings. However, she struggled against Washington allowing four earned runs in four innings. Arnold profiles as a more than competent pitcher but she is not in the class of Waldrop, King, et al. Sandercock has an impressive pedigree and could get into that class but she is not there yet and for this year FSU needs someone to approach that level if they plan to make a serious run at another College World Series - much less win it.
Last year the Seminoles could run out one of the very best lineups in the nation. Maybe Oklahoma was better last year but other than the Sooners it would be very hard to come up with a better lineup than what FSU had in 2019. Unfortunately four of those players either graduated (Carsyn Gordon, Cali Harrod, Zoe Casas) or transferred (Makinzy Herzog) and FSU’s production at the plate has taken a hit. Now with the injury to Anna Shelnutt the Noles have some huge holes to fill in the lineup.
Fortunately, Florida State has talent in the lineup. Kiersten Landers looks like the real deal at the top of the lineup and should provide a spark with her speed. Devyn Flaherty and Josie Muffley are other newcomers who have potential. Unfortunately FSU just isn’t going to be able to immediately find players capable of replacing the 225 hits, 140 RBI and 37 HRs lost with the departure of those four players.
Even at an event as stacked as this one, going 1-4 is not encouraging. Also, losing one of the team leaders to an injury for an indefinite period of time is obviously very difficult. However this roster, while young, is very talented. Florida State will still be at or very near the top of the ACC.
Even though the Noles didn’t beat a ranked team this weekend, because the strength of schedule was so tough the RPI should still be fine. However, because FSU didn’t bank several (or any) impressive wins this weekend the Seminoles will not be able to afford some of the disappointing losses they suffered last year if they expect to get one of the coveted top eight seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
Florida State will welcome UCF to the Seminole Softball Complex on February 26th. First pitch is scheduled for 6pm and the game will be broadcast on the ACC Network Extra.