Wheaton has helped put UF on verge of WCWS

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FILE — Florida's catcher Janell Wheaton gets checked out by the trainer after getting hit by a pitch during the game against Ohio State University in the NCAA Regionals, at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium in Gainesville. [Cyndi Chambers/Gainesville Sun Correspondent]

Catchers are supposed to be tough, right? What do they call their gear, the tools of ignorance? It’s a cliche that comes from the theory that nobody would volunteer to squat for an entire game and take foul shots off their various body parts.

Catchers are different, too, and there aren’t too many different than Florida softball senior Janell Wheaton. She’s a lefty, which usually gets you out of the crouched position behind the plate faster than bad news.

But it has not been an issue during these past two years as Florida’s everyday catcher. Neither had her resilience.

“She’s an absolute rock,” said UF pitcher Kelly Barnhill. “I couldn’t do what I do without her. She’s such a tough, amazing person.”

Wheaton and other other seniors will start their final home series of their college careers tonight when they face Texas A&M at 7. Either the second-seeded Gators or 15-seeded Aggies will advance to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City with two wins.

That Florida is in this position falls on the shoulders of its stars — Barnhill and Aleshia Ocasio in the circle, Amanda Lorenz and Nicole DeWitt at the plate plus an airtight defense.

But it’s the young lady wearing the shinguards who is a big reason why Florida is two wins away from softball’s mecca again.

“She doesn’t get a lot of credit,” Ocasio said. “I’m honestly grateful to have her behind the plate.”

Wheaton has been there for 184 starts during her UF career, taking over for the graduating Aubree Munro behind the plate last year. Her career stats are hardly gaudy — .263 batting average with 15 homers and 112 RBIs — but what she has meant to her team is a whole different story.

There is the defense — two errors all season, one passed ball and 7-of-11 base stealers erased. And there is the leadership.

“She’s been as professional as any catcher we’ve ever had,” Florida coach Tim Walton said. “She sets the tone every day with her energy and leadership skill.

“She’s really fun to coach because you know what you are going to get every time.”

And, of course, there is that toughness.

“Probably from travel ball, playing five games a day every weekend,” Wheaton said. “Just my mentality growing up. There’s no excuse not to be able to do anything.”

Her father, Joe, has a lot to do with it, from his vocal presence during games to his more subtle breakdowns of Wheaton’s at-bats afterward.

But some people are just tough.

And they are usually catchers.

Teammate Kayli Kvistad saw it last year, just before regionals when the two were tooling West on University Ave. after a PDQ lunch to go to the mall.

“They were doing road construction so (the surface) was raised,” Kvistad said. “Her back wheel caught it and it fell from underneath her. And the first thing she said was, ‘Oh no! My favorite legging is ripped.’

“She literally just got in a scooter accident and all she cared about was her legging. So I think that sums her up how tough she is. She wasn’t even worried about being on concrete.”

And then there was Sunday night, when Wheaton twice took foul tips to the same spot in her ribs. Both times, she fell to her knees in agony.

“She lost her breath,” Walton said, “and I lost my breath for a few seconds, too.”

Not surprisingly, both times Wheaton stayed in the game. You’d have to pry her off the field with a forklift.

“Oh no, no way,” she said. “Not at this point of the season in my last year. No way you’re getting me out of the game.”

After the first shot to the ribs, Walton went out to check on the catcher he has come to count on.

“Softball still fun?” he asked.

She started to laugh.

And then she went back to work.


Gainesville Super Regional

At Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium

Today: Florida vs. Texas A&M, 7 p.m., ESPN

Friday: Florida vs. Texas A&M, 7 p.m.

x-Saturday: Florida vs. Texas A&M, 5 p.m.


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