Last summer, the Florida Gulf Coast League was formed in the Bradenton-Sarasota area as a summer softball league for college athletes.
Playing at different sites across the two counties, the league helped college players stay ready during the offseason. The league is back, and the level of competition has risen even higher.
Former Lakewood Ranch High softball pitcher Brooklyn Lucero, who just finished her freshman season at North Carolina State, is one of a handful of area alumni playing in the league. She plays for the Bradenton Lynx alongside shortstop Devyn Flaherty, who played for Riverview High in Sarasota.
"This league is probably the best thing that college athletes can do right now," Lucero said. "Nothing is better than getting live reps. That's why I wanted to play in it. I want to keep playing and keep getting better for next season."
Lucero finished her freshman season at North Carolina State with 32 and two-thirds innings pitched over 14 appearances (five starts). She held a 2-1 record and a 3.64 ERA. While pitching in the FGCL, Lucero said she will focus on her mechanics, trying to increase her velocity.
She's also excited by the amount of talent she's able to face this summer. That includes the Mexico National Team, which is playing exhibition games against FGCL teams before heading to Tokyo for the Olympics in July. Lucero faced Mexico on June 25, throwing two innings and allowing four runs on five hits in a 7-0 loss.
"It was a good experience," Lucero said of facing Team Mexico. "Regardless of how we performed as a team, I think you can find little positives. Not a lot of people can say they faced a team like that. You can't think too much or you will psyche yourself out. You can focus on just making good pitches. If they hit it, you tip your cap to them. We were the first team (in exhibitions) to not get run-ruled by them, so that's something."
FGCL founder Ryan Moore said that as good as last year's talent was, this year's group — now split among 10 teams instead of last year's seven — is "better by 100 times."
Moore said the league had to turn away some players from last year who wanted to return in order to give more kids a chance at the experience. This year, to keep every team competitive, the league instituted a rule saying each team could have no more than eight players from Power 5 conference teams.
This year, the league is playing all of its games at the Miss Sarasota Softball Complex. Regular season games continue through July 14, with two games planned most evenings, at 5 p.m. and one at 7:30 p.m. There are also a handful of morning games. Fans can purchase a single game livestream for $9.99 or the entire season (25 regular season games plus playoff and All-Star games) for $124.95, but Moore said he encourages fans to come to the games live.