Commodores carry 12-game win streak into Panhandle round robin
With Panhandle Conference play set to commence this weekend at Frank Brown Park, Gulf Coast brings in one of the more impressive non-conference resumes in the country.
The No. 16 Commodores have won 29 of 34 games, including 12 in a row, most recently sweeping a doubleheader with No. 1 Florida Southwestern on Monday at Joe Tom King Field, with their only losses this season coming to No. 9 Chattanooga State, No. 2 Wallace State-Hanceville (three times), and Copiah-Lincoln, the No. 4 team in Division-II.
As exceptional as their pre-conference record has been, the Commodores will have quite a bit of work to do this weekend to distinguish themselves among a group of incredibly loaded Panhandle Conference teams.
Gulf Coast will begin the round robin event Saturday with games against Tallahassee (18-6) and No. 12 Pensacola State (23-3) before coming back Sunday to take on No. 17 Northwest Florida State (28-5) and No. 7 Chipola (26-2).
With only 21 combined losses against 124 victories among the league's teams, four of which are ranked among the nation's top 17 teams, wins will be hard to come by, making this weekend's event a crucial one for the ensuing Panhandle Conference race.
"The round robin is an interesting deal," Gulf Coast coach Scot Thomas said. "It's almost like you play the tiebreaker first. We'll play each other four more times, so you have essentially the tiebreaker game first in the round robin format. It's really important to get out to a great start because the whole league is just so good. Everybody will be trying to put their best foot forward and get out ahead early in the conference so that if you drop a game here or there that maybe you shouldn't have, or you have a bad outing, you can at least say we got that big win in the round robin.
"These games are very important, but they all count. It will be a lot of fun. There's a lot of good teams, good softball. It's the highest level of JUCO softball that you can get."
Coming in hot
Gulf Coast couldn't have much more positive momentum going into this weekend's game than it does following Monday's wins of 7-1 and 8-0 over Florida Southwestern, which had lost just twice all season prior.
The Commodores haven't lost since falling 3-1 to Chattanooga State on Feb. 25 at the Sand Mountain Classic in Albertville, Ala., taking the last 12 outings by a combined score of 106-12.
Monday's wins in which Gulf Coast pitchers GraceAnne Spears and Savana Bradford limited the top-ranked team in the country to just one unearned run on six hits and three walks with 11 strikeouts in 12 innings was particularly encouraging given the level of competition that awaits the Commodores in the Panhandle. "Florida Southwestern is a very good program, but again, playing them and playing who we're playing in our league, it's the same deal," Thomas said. "We're playing great teams. Four out of the top five teams are in the top 20. But I thought we played well, handled things well. It's the old saying that we maximized their mistakes and minimized ours. We put the ball in play and did a good job."We realize the challenges ahead, but playing teams like Florida Southwestern helps us prepare for the Panhandle Conference."
The power of pitching depth
If there's one area of the game that could be pointed to as perhaps most responsible for the Commodores' success to this point, one would almost certainly look to the circle.
Gulf Coast is seventh in the nation in team ERA at 1.68, which leads all Panhandle Conference teams, with sophomore ace GraceAnne Spears posting a team-best 1.07 ERA while leading the nation in strikeouts with 143 in 92 innings.
It hasn't all been Spears, however, with Savanna Wood and Savana Bradford both having stellar seasons in the circle. Wood has posted a 2.00 ERA with 55 strikeouts to 18 walks in 56 innings, while Bradford is a perfect 11-0 with 46 strikeouts to 14 walks and a 2.17 ERA in 58 innings.
The Commodores are also doing it with defense, posting a .964 fielding percentage, which ranks seventh in the nation. Thomas said the two factors, pitching, and defense, go hand-in-hand.
"You've always got to be able to pitch it, catch it, and throw it, that's something we try to do every year," he said. "That's just fundamental softball. When you look at these numbers with the pitchers doing so well usually the fielding percentage will be higher because we're striking people out and getting easier ground balls, so they correlate."
While the pitching depth and defense have both been crucial, there's perhaps nothing more valuable in softball than a true No. 1 ace pitcher and the Commodores have that in Spears, who ranks fourth in the nation in ERA among pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings this season.
Spears has struck out 10 or more batters five different times this year and has limited opponents to one or fewer earned runs in 14 appearances, keeping batters off balance with movement and deception.
"GraceAnne has been phenomenal. I think she has the ability to be a Power 5 kid," Thomas said. "The key for her is getting ahead. She's got great movement, but you've got to get ahead of batters and that's what she does. She's really moving the ball and it's the old deal of making the balls look like strikes and making the strikes look like balls. She's really nasty with her movement right now.
"I think mentally she's gotten a lot tougher. I'm just really proud of the way she's owned it. She's owning her role as our top pitcher."
Speed over power
In 2021, Gulf Coast's lineup produced 46 home runs, which was good for second in the Panhandle Conference behind only Northwest Florida State's 77. With 34 games gone by in 2022, the Commodores have gone deep just 14 times, which puts them fifth among five Panhandle teams.
The drop in power hasn't been much of a concern for Thomas, however, as the Commodores have still managed to post a near-identical OPS to last season while averaging a full run more per game.
Gulf Coast has raised its batting average by 21 points from last year, though the biggest difference has been on the basepaths. After stealing 68 bases all of last season, the Commodores have swiped 98 bags already this year, which ranks eighth in the country.
Freshman Caroline Peaden leads the way with 27 stolen bases, with fellow freshman Jabby Terrell adding 21 stolen bases, and Cyrina Madrid 18 stolen bases. The speed hasn't just shown up with stolen bases, with the Commodores hitting 22 triples already, which doubles their total for all of last season.
"I like to manufacture runs," Thomas said. "My goal when I'm recruiting is to get the best athlete I can to help us score runs. That doesn't always equate to home run hitters vs. speed, but I'm gonna recruit athletes and then put them where I need to put them where they can help us score runs. We have some great athletic bodies out there and good speed all the way through the lineup. As the saying goes, speed doesn't slump.
"We don't worry about the home runs quite as much, especially when you've got three slappers in the lineup. We talk about hitting into the gaps, running the bases, and staying aggressive on the basepaths. We score runs different ways and we're scoring runs that way."
'It's a grind'
When the weekend round robin at Frank Brown Park concludes the Commodores will get set for their home Panhandle Conference debut with a Tuesday doubleheader against Pensacola State at Joe Tom King Field.
They'll end the week on March 26 with another doubleheader in Marianna against Chipola. By the end of next week Gulf Coast will have played seven games against nationally ranked teams in a span of eight days. It's emblematic of the kind of gauntlet that Panhandle Conference clubs will have to navigate in order to make it to the postseason and play for championships.
"Every game, it's a grind," Thomas said. "But I think the good teams accept the challenge and hopefully we'll be one of those teams. Top to bottom, you can't take a day off in this conference. You've got to be ready every day. It's tough because, if we were playing 16 regionals (like Division-I softball) and eight supers, every team in this conference would be going to the postseason.
"But it's gonna be a lot of fun. There's a lot of great softball here. I don't think people realize just how good the softball is in the Panhandle Conference."