FIU’s softball team, which entered this season as the Conference USA co-favorites along with Alabama-Birmingham, has a golden opportunity in 2015.
The conference tournament is set for FIU on May 7-9, and the winner automatically qualifies for the NCAA tournament, something the Panthers have accomplished only twice in 17 previous seasons — in 2003 and 2010.
Eight teams qualify for the Conference USA tournament, and it’s single elimination from there. But having it on his home field is a major plus for new FIU coach Gator Rebhan.
“Our goal is to win the conference and get into regional play,” said Rebhan, who served for one year as an FIU assistant before taking over the program.
Rebhan is a former standout baseball player who pitched for Killian High and Miami Dade Wolfson. He has coached softball for over 20 years, leading Palmetto High to two state titles (2000, 2002).
At FIU, he inherits a solid nucleus, including his 2-3-4 hitters, second baseman Ashley Leon, first baseman Stephanie Texeira and center fielder Gabby Spallone. All three are sophomores.
Leon, who is from Gulliver Prep, is a transfer from Auburn. Texeira, who also played for Gulliver, hit 11 homers last season and was the conference’s Freshman of the Year. And Spallone, who is from Palmetto, belted seven homers and is one of six FIU starters who played high school ball in South Florida.
All three are off to great starts as FIU entered the weekend 4-2, including an 11-2 loss against No. 4 Alabama.
Rebhan is confident in senior leadoff batter Rebekah Sanchez despite her slow start.
“She’s been hitting the ball on the button but right at people,” Rebhan said. “She’s a left-handed slap hitter.”
Rebhan signed six recruits this past fall, and three of them were pitchers, which shows the importance he places on the position.
It also indicates that his top two pitchers are nearing the end of their college careers — junior Corinne Jenkins and senior Shelby Graves.
Jenkins, the harder thrower of the two, has been working on her changeup. She went 17-10 last season with a 2.53 ERA. This year, she started 4-0, 1.15.
Graves went 15-7 last year with a 3.37 ERA. This year, she is off to a rough start (0-2, 7.41), but some of that is because it was her turn in the rotation when FIU played Alabama.
“Shelby is more of a movement pitcher,” Rebhan said. “She has a really good changeup. She’s going to win a lot of games for us again this year.”
Former Hurricanes running back Willis McGahee, 33, recently tried out to compete in the National Professional Grid League.
The NPGL, which is about to start its second season, is a co-ed league. In each game, two teams of competitors compete against each other in a series of races in which they lift weights, climb ropes and perform various other powerful feats.
Earlier this month, McGahee, who last played in the NFL in 2013, took part in the NPGL Los Angeles Pro Day, tore his fingertips on the rope climb and could not continue. He plans to go to another NPGL Pro Day.
Guard Deandre Turner is the reigning Men’s Basketball Player of the Week among Florida’s junior colleges. He is the third Broward College player to win the award this season, joining Kevin Mickle (Jan. 5-11) and Jayvian Delacruz (Jan. 26-Feb. 1).