Walton reinvents UF softball
Published: Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at 9:00 p.m.
It was hardly a blip on his radar when the SEC coaches picked Tim Walton's team to finish seventh in the conference in the preseason. If you looked at it on paper, he couldn't disagree.
NCAA Gainesville Regional
At Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium
Game 1 — Georgia Southern (32-38) vs. South Florida (43-14), 3:30 p.m.
Game 2 — Hampton (33-24) at Florida (52-7), 6 p.m.
Game 3 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 1 p.m.
Game 4 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 3:30 p.m.
Game 5 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner, 6 p.m.
Game 6 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 1 p.m.
x-Game 7 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 3:30 p.m.
After all, Walton had lost almost half of his starting lineup when three players expected to be the core of the team were dismissed and a fourth, who was supposed to be a senior, decided to hang it up.
There were a lot of people who thought Florida softball would have to take a step back to move forward. But what they didn't know was that Walton had decided to reinvent his program.
“Some of our problems have become our strengths,” Walton said.
Part of it is opportunity. Because of the attrition from a year ago, the young players — including a stellar freshman class — have been given the chance to be in the lineup every day rather than wait for their turns.
“Because of our lack of experience, they've had multiple opportunities to fail,” Walton said.
Florida is getting ready to play in the NCAA regionals as the No. 2 national seed, something nobody could have seen coming when this season started. But by then, Walton had gotten the attention of his team.
He pulled out some familiar motivational techniques to bring his players together after the previous season had been crippled by discord.
To wear the Gator head on the front of the school's practice jersey was not a right or a given any more. To wear it, you had to earn it.
That meant doing community service hours above and beyond what the team does on a regular basis. That meant taking each of your teammates out for a meal outside of the training table. That meant academic accountability which required the signatures of academic counselors for assignments and tutoring.
They bought in. They also bought into the notion that hitting and fielding don't happen by accident or because you have certain skills. They took hundreds of extra at-bats and scooped up hundreds of grounders.
It didn't take long for these ladies to take a big step forward when they were supposed to be retreating.
After their first fall game, Walton brought the team back to the locker room between games of a doubleheader. There, in their lockers, were jerseys adorned with Gator heads.
“They were screaming and yelling and jumping up and down,” he said. “If we had it on video, well, I have it on video in my mind.”
That's when Walton and his coaching staff knew that this team grasped the concept, that it understood that being a Florida Gator and being part of this softball program is more than an entitlement. And the Gators carried that on into an amazing season.
Walton started a lineup that featured defense when SEC play began. It turned out not only to be an excellent defensive group, but one of the most ferocious offensive lineups in UF history.
“They realize how much hard work it takes to be a good hitter,” Walton said. “I feel like our kids are getting stronger. Not just physically stronger but mechanically stronger.”
Florida won 52 of 59 games, won the SEC regular-season title, won the conference tournament. The Gators head into Friday's regional with a much different feel than they did a year ago, when three players were suspended on the day the regional started in Gainesville.
Many of the players from that team are still here, the disappointment of last year scabbed over. The influx of first-year players has had a deep impact.
“We recruited them to start, but when we recruited them we didn't need them to be starters,” Walton said. “They took advantage of a real opportunity.
“The one thing that has come out of this thing is that they really trusted me. When you read about what happened at the University of Florida, it would have been easy for kids to wonder if this is what they wanted to do. Do they want to go to Florida?”
Walton still doesn't like to talk about the incident that happened a year ago and led to the suspensions and eventual transfers of Sami and Kasey Fagan and Cheyenne Coyle. As far as he's concerned, it's ancient history that has nothing to do with this year's team.
Except that it does. Because of what happened, Walton went to work tweaking the way he does things. And a year after the incident that shook the world of college softball, the Gators are back to being the Gators again.
Right down to the practice jerseys.