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Gulf Coast Commodores return home after hot start

Gulf Coast Commodores return home after hot start

Gulf Coast will make its regular season home debut with four games this weekend at Joe Tom King Field, and if they play anything like they did in their season-opening trip to Clearwater, the Commodores might make it to a third weekend without tasting defeat. 

Coach Scot Thomas' crew went 5-0 last weekend at the JUCO Kickoff Classic, taking out three of the top 11 ranked teams in the state (St. Petersburg, Santa Fe, Miami Dade) along with wins over Georgia Highlands and Georgia State. 

There was plenty for the Commodores to be happy about after outscoring their opponents by a combined score of 33-11, but there was one aspect of their performance that Thomas was most encouraged by. 

"I think the biggest thing was that the pitching was very good," he said. "GraceAnne Spears threw really well, Savana Wood pitched very well, Savana Bradford threw well, I just think from an overall standpoint they did a very good job. They kept them guessing and I thought the pitch calling was really good."

It's an area that the Commodores are looking to improve upon from last season when they had a 3.92 team era, which ranked just 11th in the state. There's reason for optimism with both Spears and Bradford back with an extra year of experience under their belts and the additions of Wood, who missed all of last season due to injury, and freshman Kyrstyn Head, who missed last weekend with an injury of her own.

Thomas said that the experience Gulf Coast brings back in the circle is important, but it's the depth that could be the biggest difference maker in 2022. 

"We've got about four kids that can give us quality innings," he said. "It makes it so much nicer that you don't have to second-guess yourself when you're looking to the bench for somebody to bring in. If somebody happens to get in trouble, you can just say, 'alright, you're next' and feel good about it.

"(Wood) can be huge, she and GraceAnne and the other pitchers all compliment each other so well. I know Woody is excited to finally be playing again and a lot of times that can rub off on everyone else. I also really think that Kyrstyn Head can give us some great innings too. When you look at GraceAnne, Woody, Savana Bradford, and Kyrstyn Head, I think all of them will be able to give us some quality innings." 

Head, who was a two-way star at Walton who batted .523 with nine home runs as a senior, will also provide some offensive punch as a DP to a lineup featuring several new faces, though also a few familiar ones such as Emily Greek, Cyrina Madrid, and Ellie Fried. 

Greek and Madrid form the Commodores' middle infield duo and Fried will lead a talented outfield featuring Chipola transfer Natalie Kopicova and Dothan (Ala.) freshmen Jabby Terrell and Collier Peaden, the latter of whom led the team with 11 hits and a .579 batting average in Fort Myers. 

Gulf Coast hit .366 as a team with five home runs and a .988 OPS over the weekend, though Thomas did express some concern about the team's 25 strikeouts against just seven walks. 

"The biggest negative thing was that we probably struck out too much," he said. "Maybe we were pressing because it was the start of the season, but hopefully that improves and I think it will. It's just a matter of getting a little more confidence and experience and we'll be fine."

Making consistent contact will be especially important given the Commodores' improved speed on the basepaths, which Thomas said rivals that of any squad he has ever led, even going back to his time at Virginia Tech. That speed could make Gulf Coast more dangerous on offense and much stingier on defense. 

"We've got a lot of speed out there," he said. "We're faster than we were last year and it helps us create some runs. This is the fastest outfield I've ever had in the history of coaching for me. There's never been a full lineup I had at Virginia Tech that had this much speed. I told them our goal was to keep the ball from hitting the ground and catch them all. We've got the speed that can do it, so it's a good group."

It's a group that, with the exception of the third-year sophomore Greek, has been recruited to Gulf Coast entirely by Thomas. With a roster that he has been able to craft to fit his preferred style of play, with improved team speed and depth in the circle, there's no reason to think the Commodores can't compete for a Panhandle Conference championship. 

And as history as shown, if you can win the Panhandle, you can also compete at the state and national levels. That is certainly the plan for Thomas and the Commodores. 

"My goal for the program is to win a national championship," he said. "I'm not saying it's going to happen this year, but in this league where national championships have come out of, I think that should always be your long term goal. We don't talk about that a whole lot on an everyday standpoint, we just talk about the next game. But our long term goal is to try to win this league, which we know is the best conference in the country, and if you're fortunate enough to make it past this gauntlet, it gives you the experience to be ready to roll. 

"I think it's gonna prepare us to be the best that we can be at the end. A lot of it is to stay healthy and keep playing hard, but it's a good bunch. I really like this team, they get along well and have great team chemistry. I think they all understand what we're trying to do as a program. It's the same as everyone else in the Panhandle, whether they're saying it out loud or not, we're all trying to do the same thing."