UF softball begins SEC tourney


Freshmen Kelsey Stewart, left, Kirsti Merritt and the Gator softball team gets set to begin SEC Tournament action on Thursday.

Brett Le Blanc/Correspondent
Published: Thursday, May 9, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 at 6:52 p.m.

Fresh off their first regular-season Southeastern Conference Championship since 2009, the Florida Gators will take the diamond Thursday as the No. 1 seed for the 2013 SEC Tournament when they square off against No. 8 seed Alabama in a scheduled 11 a.m. matchup.

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Freshmen Kelsey Stewart, left, Kirsti Merritt and the Gator softball team gets set to begin SEC Tournament action on Thursday.

Brett Le Blanc/Correspondent

The game is the first of four quarterfinals on tap at the University of Kentucky's new John Cropp Stadium in Lexington and will be televised live on ESPNU. The tournament is single-elimination format.

“We've got some question marks about our team that we'd still like to answer,” UF head coach Tim Walton said. “We don't really consider the SEC Tournament a postseason event. We consider it more an in-season event, but I'd still like to see some of our players perform in a tournament in an elimination-type format, so we may shake up the lineup a little bit. Again, you want to find out what you can use and what you have or don't have for the postseason.

“With that being said, obviously you play it as a one-game tournament, and you go and don't leave anything back.”

It's already been an amazing season for Florida (49-7, 18-6), which was picked to finish fourth in the SEC East and seventh overall in the league. Instead, the Gators won their fourth overall SEC crown and sixth SEC East title and enter Thursday's game with more wins than anyone in the nation.

“For us as freshmen to come in here and win an SEC Championship in one of the nation's toughest conferences is just amazing,” said second baseman Kelsey Stewart, UF's leading hitter (.395) and one of five Gators to earn All-SEC honors.

In addition, Walton was chosen as the SEC Coach of the Year for the fourth time in his eight-year tenure.

“You hope when you recruit that you recruit a lot of the same type of personalities and the same type of people with the same type of goals, but this team has really meshed themselves together really well,” he said. “I give a lot of credit to our two seniors, Ensley Gammel and Kelsey Horton, for their leadership and to Paul Chandler, our strength and conditioning coach, and his staff. They've really instilled that camaraderie and that chemistry from day one in the weight room, and I've been a firm believer that that's where it's built, in the weight room. That's where you build team chemistry; that's where you get that bond together.

“This is the first time we've ever traveled with a strength staff for every road game, and it shows, not only in how we're fit, but just the mindset of the way people treat each other. It's huge, and I give a lot of credit to the girls. I haven't done anything different.”

With a victory Thursday, UF will advance to the semifinals Friday at 3 p.m. on ESPNU against the winner of Thursday's game between No. 4 seed LSU (40-13, 15-8) and No. 5 seed Georgia (37-18, 14-9). A win also would give the Gators their fifth 50-win season in program history.

The championship final will air live on ESPN Saturday at 8 p.m.

“I'm ready to start the SEC Tournament and (NCAA) regionals,” freshman first baseman Taylor Schwarz said. “This is where the fun begins, really. This whole season has been so awesome. I'm so blessed to be a part of such a great team, so I'm just really, really excited.”

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