The St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational is an early season softball tournament that is presented by ESPN Events. This year was the third edition of the tournament. The Invitational featured 16 teams. The teams were (Pre-tournament Coaches Poll ranks in parentheses): (3) UCLA, (5) Florida State, (6) Washington, (7) Oklahoma State, (11) Texas, (15) Clemson, (18) Tennessee, (19) Michigan, (21) LSU, (24) Central Florida, (26) Northwestern, (27) Auburn, (29) Notre Dame, (31) South Florida, Texas Tech and Wisconsin. 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 (although if you are reading this article you probably did) you can probably deduce that FSU did well from the title of this article. Florida State went undefeated (5-0) during the tournament. The tournament started (for FSU) on Thursday afternoon. The Noles faced Tennessee and won 9-3. Friday afternoon FSU beat Texas 9-2. Saturday afternoon FSU defeated Michigan 2-1. Sunday the Noles walloped UCF 8-0 in five innings. Sunday night, in prime time in front of a national television audience on ESPN in the final game of the Invitational, the Seminoles beat UCLA 4-3 in eight innings.
FSU is now undefeated on the season at 10-0. The Noles have moved up in the Coaches Poll from fifth to third (more in this later).
Florida State was the only team to go through the tournament undefeated. The Noles also played a very tough schedule only facing ranked teams. The Seminoles trailed only once all tournament; in the second inning UCLA scored twice but Michaela Edenfield answered with a bomb in the bottom of the inning and FSU took the lead 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 make the Championship Series 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 5 homeruns over the five games (30 innings). However, Florida State didn’t just rely on power. The Noles displayed versatility with the offense. There was power when needed (usually from Edenfield who had three HRs this weekend) but the Seminoles also displayed the ability to scratch out runs when needed. In the Michigan game FSU showcased how opportunistic the offense can be scoring on a bases loaded walk and a wild pitch.
The core of the lineup was stable: Kaley Mudge and Jahni Kerr alternated at the top of the order. Mack Leonard, Kalei Harding and Michaela Edenfield followed. Devyn Flaherty, Sydney Sherrill, Bethaney Keen and Brooke Blakenship or Josie Muffley (platoon) filled out the rest of the lineup. There are no breaks for the opposing pitcher in that lineup. That lineup will be a challenge for any team that the Noles face this year.
The pitching was outstanding given the competition. The staff gave up seven earned runs in 34 innings (1.44 ERA). Kathryn Sandercock is a legitimate ace for this staff. The senior has matured into a worthy heir to the pitching tradition at FSU that includes Meghan King, Jessica Burroughs and Lacey Waldrop among many others. However, Danielle Watson has earned the trust of the coaches as well. That was proven when the Louisville transfer was given the ball against UCLA on national television in prime time.
The defense was generally good this weekend. FSU only committed five errors in the tournament and those came in two games (Tennessee and UCLA). There are a few new faces in the field 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 three pitcher behind Sandercock and Watson is a bit unsettled. In order to feel good about their chances in the WCWS the Noles may have to find reliable help for the pair of aces on the pitching staff. The good news is that there is certainly talent available. The top contender for this spot is Emma Wilson. However, based on this weekend the jury is still out on the junior who only pitched a single inning (Brianna Enter pitched 2⁄3 of an inning). The even better news is that FSU may not need to use a third pitcher that much against top competition. The way softball is played today with more space between games and fewer scheduled double-headers (FSU has only three more scheduled double-headers the rest of the year) the Seminoles may be able to get away with having ACC Pitcher of the Week Sandercock and Watson shouldering the great majority of the pitching load - as long as they can stay healthy.
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 efficiency and the generally excellent pitching. To be sure, the Seminoles delivered some web gems but there were mistakes as well.
The Noles featured a lineup with four and a half returning players. The half refers to the fact that there was a platoon at shortstop this weekend. Freshman Brooke Blankenship started for most of the weekend but she was replaced on Sunday by senior Josie Muffley. Going forward FSU will have to decide whether to continue with the platoon or choose Muffley or Blankenship to be the regular at shortstop. However, most of the newcomers acquitted themselves well. Edenfield was spectacular and was duly recognized as the ACC Player of the Week. Leonard hit .438 with five RBI.
Florida State moved up from fifth to third in the Coaches Poll. FSU is now only behind Oklahoma and Alabama. Polls this early in the season don’t really matter much but the Sooners are a good bet to be the top team in the polls for the foreseeable future as they are really good and they play a Charmin soft schedule.
Basically, the pollsters believe that OU is the best team in the nation. There is plenty of evidence for this view as the Sooners basically lost no one from their amazing lineup of last year. However, they did lose ace pitcher Giselle Juarez and they would not have beaten FSU last year in the WCWS without her. The Sooners have replaced her with stud freshman Jordy Bahl (6-0, 0.00 ERA, 20.1 IP) so the pollsters are convinced that OU won’t miss a beat.
They might not but it may be tough to really know how good they are because Patty Gasso for some reason schedules softly. They will be challenged only a handful of times before the postseason. Remember also that they lost twice at the WCWS last year. They are really good but far from unbeatable.
As for the Crimson Tide, they are also really talented but FSU owns a five game (and counting) winning streak over them.
The point is that both Oklahoma and Alabama are really good and I don’t really have a problem with them being ranked above Florida State. However, the Noles currently have the most impressive resume in the nation and that should be recognized as well.
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 five top 25 victories will look mighty good to the committee. At 10-0 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 Championship Series appearance.
Florida State will welcome Florida A&M to the Seminole Softball Complex on Wednesday. The first pitch will be at 6pm. The game will be broadcast on the ACC Network Extra.