Softball begins season Saturday at Panhandle Invitational
The long road towards a second conference title starts Saturday for Jacksonville when it opens the season at the two-day Panhandle Invitational in Tallahassee, Fla.

The Dolphins, picked fifth in the A-Sun preseason polls, open the tourney Saturday against in-state rival Bethune-Cookman at 2 p.m., while playing Florida A&M at 4 p.m. On Saturday, they play the Lady Rattlers again at 3 p.m. and wrap the tourney against host No. 24 Florida State at 5 p.m.

“We are excited to start our season in Tallahassee and see how we stack up to the competition,” JU head coach Ali Higgs said. “This weekend will be a good test to see where we are at as a team. Bethune Cookman, FAMU and Florida State always have great teams that go far in post season. We are looking forward to seeing a different color jersey in the opposing dugout and competing hard in all four games.”

In 2012, the Dolphins reached the 30-win plateau (31) for the third straight season and earned a spot in the conference tournament as the No. 5 seed. JU beat Lipscomb in the tourney opener, but lost to eventual champion Florida Gulf Cost and Kennesaw State in extra innings to fall short of repeating as conference champions.

As a team, JU ranked second in the A-Sun in hitting (.278) and third in ERA (2.11). The pitching staff finished second in strikeouts at 370.

Senior Sarah Simon, juniors Karson Tuck and Codi Kelly and sophomore Ashley Simon all among 11 returners back for JU in 2013.

Simon led the Dolphins in RBI (40) and home runs (8) and ranking third in doubles (8) last year. She enters the year as the JU career leader in home runs (24), walks (102), slugging percentage (.524) and on-base percentage (.426). She is also within striking distance to take the top spots for RBI, doubles and total bases.

Tuck, Kelly and Ashley Simon were each named second team all-conference following a solid 2012 campaign.

Tuck batted .279 (43-154) with eight doubles, four home runs and 30 RBI in 54 games during her sophomore season. Kelly led the Dolphins in A-Sun play with a .364 (20-55) average and five doubles, while Simon batted .299 (35-117) with six doubles and 14 RBI to receive her accolades.

In the circle, the Dolphins will have to rely on youth in freshmen Taylor Rossman, Victoria Brown, and Cecile Gomez to fill the shoes left by Sarah Sigrest and Brittany Eppley. The trio helped JU to a 7-1 mark during fall play. Also in the mix will be senior Dale Tillman, who posted three wins in 44.1 innings of work last season.

“I am really looking forward to seeing our pitching staff perform this weekend,” Higgs said. “All four of them have worked very hard in bullpen workouts and throwing live at bats to our hitters in practice. This is a game of composure, competitiveness and consistency in the circle. It will be interesting to see who steps up and can be effective when it counts.”

The Seminoles, who are picked second in the ACC preseason poll, swept the Dolphins, 6-0 & 7-1, in Tallahassee last season. Florida State has won the last four contests since JU’s 5-2 win in the Seminole Invitational on Feb. 15, 2008.

The Dolphins shutout out the Wildcats, 8-0, and Lady Rattlers, 8-0, each at home last season. JU has won the last five against Bethune-Cookman and are winners of the last six against Florida A&M.

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