Softball: Kenna Wilkey, Nikki Cuchran to play in inaugural season of Florida Gulf Coast League


Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Kenna Wilkey takes a swing. Wilkey and teammate Nikki Cuchran will play in the inaugural season of the Florida Gulf Coast League this summer.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Sports Editor


All over the country, summer leagues provide college baseball players with a chance to keep working at their craft and playing the game they love after the school season ends. This year, college softball players will get that same opportunity for the first time.

Despite concerns about COVID-19, the Florida Gulf Coast League will still kick off its inaugural season in June, joined by Northwestern’s Kenna Wilkey and Nikki Cuchran.

Wilkey, a rising senior pitcher, and Cuchran, a rising junior infielder, will remain teammates, playing with the Manatee Squeeze. The Squeeze roster includes players from major conference programs including Washington, Louisville, Wisconsin and Clemson, plus several other Division I schools.

“I talked about it with my whole family, and we decided it would be a really good opportunity for me to get games in, get experience, especially given the circumstances,” Cuchran said.

Wilkey said she learned about the league from Wisconsin catcher Taylor Johnson, her former travel ball teammate. Johnson was asked if she knew any good pitchers who might want to play, and Wilkey was the first name that came to mind. Cuchran later expressed interest in the FGCL after finding out Wilkey had signed on.

Mario Hernandez, the volunteer assistant coach at Jacksonville University, will be the Squeeze’s head coach. Hernandez said he believes both Wilkey and Cuchran will play key roles, with Wilkey expected to be one of the team’s top pitchers. Wilkey will have the opportunity to hit for herself when she pitches, like she does with the Wildcats.

“They’re super hungry to get out there and compete again,” Hernandez said. “I’ve seen some video online, I’ve looked at their stats. They’re going to be able to help us a ton offensively, being high-RBI hitters. The power numbers they can bring to our lineup is going to be great.”

The coronavirus pandemic has forced the FGCL to delay the start of its season and follow a compressed schedule, and Hernandez said players who are arriving from outside Florida will stay at hotels across the street from the fields to avoid unnecessary travel.

Players will report to a four-field complex at Lakewood Ranch High School in Bradenton, Florida for orientation on June 14, with the first games to be played on June 18. The season will run for just over a month, through the championship game on July 21.

Wilkey said although she is aware of the risks of playing this summer, she is not seriously worried about the virus and is looking forward to reuniting with Johnson and some of her other former travel ball teammates.

“People would think I would be (concerned), but I’m really not,” Wilkey said. “I’m excited to go out there and play. I feel comfortable with myself and I feel comfortable being around other people. I trust that I’ll be fine.”

Both Wilkey and Cuchran are looking forward to playing in competitive games for the first time since early March, when NU and every other college team had their seasons halted. Wilkey had a 3.27 ERA in 30 innings pitched during the shortened college season. Cuchran started all 23 of the Cats’ games, hitting .277 with five doubles and two home runs.

Cuchran said NU’s coaches were supportive of her and Wilkey playing this summer as long as they stay safe and healthy, adding that she would like to see more softball summer leagues follow the FGCL’s lead if it succeeds.

“It opens a door for this to be more of a regular thing,” Cuchran said. “It would be so cool if (summer ball) could turn into as big of a thing as it is in baseball.”

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Twitter: @bxrosenberg

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