Freshman Stewart leads Gators into Super Regional
Published: Friday, May 24, 2013 at 7:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 24, 2013 at 8:49 p.m.
She has a smile plastered perpetually on her face, but it hasn’t always been fun for Kelsey Stewart.
Gainesville Super Regional
At Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium
UAB (40-17) vs. Florida (55-7), 1 p.m., ESPNU/104.9-FM
Florida vs. UAB, noon, ESPN/104.9-FM
x-If necessary, 3 p.m., ESPN/104.9-FM
The Florida freshman ran into the wall that athletes in all sports run into at some point in their lives. Stewart slammed into it in the summer.
After another great season with Maize High in Wichita, Kan., it was right to her Wichita Mustangs travel team. It was a grind she knew all too well, except that now it really was a grind.
“I stopped having fun,” she said. “I saw it as something I had to do instead of something I wanted to do. I liked hitting with my dad, but the rest, it just wasn’t fun anymore.
“I wanted to get here real bad.”
Stewart couldn’t wait to get to Gainesville and play with new teammates and for a new coach. But even then, her first days as a Gator didn’t rekindle the spirit.
The workouts were brutal. The distance home was far.
“You could see it when her parents left,” Florida coach Tim Walton said. “I’ve seen it before. It’s the heat, it’s the change in time zone, it’s the culture. Mom’s not there to cook meals when you’re hungry.
“They’re freshmen for a reason. You have to get them to be comfortable.”
It took two weeks. And just like that. Stewart had new friends and a new outlook.
Actually, her old one had returned.
“After two weeks, I told myself that this is where I want to be and this is what I want to do,” she said. “This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.”
Stewart shook off the homesickness and the heat and the environment to get herself prepared to be Florida’s leadoff hitter and regular second baseman. And the freshman has produced.
Heading into today’s Super Regional against Alabama-Birmingham, Stewart leads Florida in a number of offensive categories.
She is hitting .392, by far the best on the team, has scored 59 runs and has 85 hits (both team highs) and also leads the team in triples and stolen bases.
At second base, she has made the spectacular look routine.
And the funny thing is, what Stewart has done as a true freshman is hardly a surprise to Walton. He expected it.
“We knew before the season that if she was not the player we thought she was we wouldn’t be as good as we wanted to be,” Walton said.
Last summer seems like a long time ago. The smile owns her face again.
“Kelsey had been playing on a great high school team and had been playing on a high-level travel team since the seventh grade,” Walton said. “I wouldn’t call it burnout, but sometimes you forget about kids when they’re playing on really, really good travel teams that it’s almost like work.”
Stewart is like all of her teammates who can’t wait to get back on the field today at 1 p.m. after being off since last Sunday when the Gators took the Gainesville Regional with a 2-0 win over South Florida.
“It’s just staying mentally tough,” Stewart said. “Seven days is a long time, but we’re not really worried. Just come out and do what we do best.”
If they do, the Gators will make a return trip to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series. The Gators went to four straight before missing last year.
In their way is an Alabama-Birmingham team that surprised the softball world by winning the Louisville Regional and beating two ranked teams in the process.
UAB, which has never faced Florida, is in its 14th year of softball and this team refers to itself as Team 14. It’s the first Super Regional for the Blazers, and they have won 40 games (40-17) for the first time in school history.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.