Gators' emotional ties with fanbase on display in softball title celebration
Published: Wednesday, June 4, 2014 at 8:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 4, 2014 at 8:20 p.m.
It was the kind of embrace you could feel even from a distance.
Taylore Fuller came into Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium with her teammates, marching down the left-field line to thunderous applause. But when they turned left to stand behind the table set up for their celebration, she turned right.
Her father Randy leaned over the railing and they hugged for a long time.
“I didn't get to share the moment with him,” said Fuller, who is from Trenton and Chiefland High. “So that was my moment.”
Randy Fuller stayed behind to help Taylore's sister Caitlin get ready for graduation from Chiefland. So this was the first time they could celebrate history.
They weren't alone. Fans who had watched the night before on television lined up an hour before the gates opened, the line stretching out of the parking lot and down Hull Road, and waited another hour for the team to arrive at the stadium to celebrate the Florida program's first Women's College World Series title.
As humid as it was, there were more tears than beads of sweat and more hugs than a wedding reception. The whirlwind of emotions was less than 24 hours old when the Gator softball team flew home on a chartered flight, received a police escort from the airport to the stadium and strutted in to celebrate with their most loyal fans, who filled about 75 percent of the stands.
Some of those fans arrived more than an hour before the gates opened. Marleen Aiton, 67, and her wheelchair-bound husband Rodgers, 75, were among the first through the gates along with their service dog A.J., a rat terrier who was panting in the heat.
“We were here when the first hole was dug (for the stadium),” Marleen said. “We came from baseball and never went back. We come to all the games. So does A.J. He knows the girls.”
On the field, the University Athletic Association had done it right. The “2014 — National Champions” sign was already up on the left-field wall. And behind the circle were the initials “HB” for Heather Braswell.
Heather had thrown out the first pitch of this season, a young girl fighting brain cancer who had been adopted by the team in 2010. She didn't survive to see this, but you know she was eating Twizzlers in a better place.
Twizzlers? The official food of this amazing team. They wore them and ate them and twirled them in the dugout. As fans came in to celebrate Wednesday, they were offered the red, sweet treats.
They waited and perspired and finally they could hear the police sirens.
“That was exciting for me,” said center fielder Kirsti Merritt. “I told them, 'Guys, we're getting a police escort. That's never happened before.' ”
You win it all, you get to run red lights.
In the stadium, UF president Bernie Machen spoke, referring to this team as America's team because, “everybody in America was watching, according to my emails.”
And then it was the architect, the coach who kept plugging away and taking his team to Oklahoma City knowing and hoping he'd have a team that could do this, a team that could combine chemistry and talent and momentum and win the whole enchilada.
“The one thing you can't teach is experience,” Tim Walton said. “The more you go, the better you get. We were there to win it. We weren't there to get the T-shirts.”
It wasn't lost on him that only two years ago, he went through a chemistry low point with his roster, dismissing three players on the eve of the NCAA tournament. And just two years later, here was a team that seemed like 17 sisters with a common goal.
“You learn,” Walton said. “I'll put the ownership back onto myself. I had to re-evaluate the program. The best thing for me is that it's the epitome of a team. No player feels better than another.”
Several of the players talked to the crowd before WCWS Most Valuable Player Hannah Rogers was introduced last to a long standing ovation.
And then they watched another video presentation on the big board, some of the players wiping tears away as they watched themselves celebrate just the night before.
“When there were six outs to go, I started counting and telling myself, 'We can do this,' ” Merritt said. “Every out I was jumping around like we'd won the national championship because I knew we were one step closer.”
And then, they were right on top of it and each other.
There were no more outs left to count.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at email@example.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.