BRADENTON -- The hardest thing in sports is repeating success.
With the State College of Florida softball team coming off a banner 2012, during which the Manatees qualified for their first JUCO World Series, there's reason to fear a letdown.
But this year's crop of Manatees doesn't figure to let that happen, especially with two marquee returning players and a No. 4 preseason national ranking.
Paige Mathews asserted herself as a dominant pitcher last spring and did so entering the season as SCF's No. 2 in the rotation behind Chelsea Oglevie. Oglevie was the sophomore leader and ace of the staff, a role now belonging to Mathews.
Head coach Meredith Headings doesn't see that bothering Mathews.
"Paige is an absolute animal once she gets on the mound," Headings said. "She works so hard. Every lap she runs, she sprints it. She's always the first pitcher there and the last one when they work bullpens. She stays there. She works hard, and she's prepared. And she has that fight, that fire that is missing in kids sometimes."
Mathews' determination and focus never wanes. For instance, she tossed a no-hitter last spring at home but had no idea she accomplished the feat until about 10 minutes after the game.
That goes back to SCF's philosophy of one pitch, one batter, one out and one game at a time.
Mathews' ability to stay on point led to some gaudy stats in her freshman season: 268 strikeouts against 42 walks in 199 innings pitched and a 0.74 earned-run average.
Giving Mathews one run last season felt like giving any
other pitcher five runs. She usually made it hold up.
But the SCF Manatees aren't just about pitching and defense. They sport a returning offense with some question marks, but also a lot of power. In addition to Oglevie departing, the club had to fill six starting spots on offense.
However, that pressure is less of a burden because of another star from last season's team. It's first baseman Ashley Burney, who bopped seven home runs and hit .360. Both were team highs.
The Palatka native said her personal goal this season is to break Headings' home run records of 23 (for a career) and 13 (for a season).
But the team comes first for Burney and the rest of the Manatees, and aiding her in the lineup is the influx of new players who carry big sticks, too.
Kat Penn and Crystal Cyr join Burney as power hitters this season as well as sophomore Kayla Bjorge, who Headings said made improvements in the offseason to provide a different dimension from her slap-hitting style in 2012.
"Everyone in our lineup is pretty much power," Burney said.
An underrated missing ingredient from last year's run, though, is catcher Angie Dascoli. She handled the pitching staff and contributed to Mathews' first-year success.
Now Mathews is the seasoned veteran, but she's up for the challenge.
"I still have that same fire and that same intensity as last year," Mathews said.
SCF is off to a 2-2 start after opening the season over the weekend at the JUCO Kickoff Tournament in Clearwater.
Nonetheless, the club is immensely talented and figures to battle for another chance to go to the national tournament. "We got far last year, but I want to win it all this year," Mathews said. "I think it's good that we had experience there, and I'm just looking forward to it a lot."