Having spent 340 days away, No. 7 Gators softball team opens season with series at USF
Now in his 16th season with the program, Florida softball coach Tim Walton undoubtedly has the best gauge on his personnel — although that doesn’t mean he knows how the No. 7-ranked Gators will look when they return to competition with the season-opening series this weekend at the University of South Florida.
Saturday’s doubleheader, which marks UF’s first game in 340 days, against USF begins at 4 p.m. Sunday’s game is set for 1 p.m., the series finale.
Despite months spent focused on intersquad battles and practicing, Walton’s aware that UF’s actual competition form remains to be seen when the Gators battle the Bulls.
That doesn’t mean it’s a problem exclusive to Florida, however.
“I think there’s a lot more unknowns about every team in the country this year,” Walton said. “The first thing is just get a measuring stick on our players, how well we can play together as one as opposed to two teams, which we’ve been doing. We’ve been playing a lot of scrimmages, a lot of intersquads, and I think that the teams that are going to probably rise to the top are the teams that can handle the adversity of playing games and then stopping maybe a little during the season, and then going out there and doing it again.”
It’s not an entirely unfamiliar experience for the program, seeing as the Gators stopped but didn’t restart when the COVID-19 pandemic changed the landscape of countless societal aspects.
UF made it through non-conference play with a promising 20-4 record and swept Auburn in the first SEC series of the 2020 slate before the shutdown. Last year, the Gators also opened the season in Tampa, albeit in the five-game USF-Rawlings Invitational, meaning Walton and the team are cognizant of the changes that may come with jumping head-first into a series.
“USF’s a good team, and I think they’re going to play us tough and everyone else on their schedule tough. I’ve always liked going to Tampa, a great opportunity for our Gator fans in that area to really get a chance to see the Gators play in their hometown, so I love that,” Walton began, before addressing the lack of sizable crowds this season due to the pandemic. “Obviously we’re not going to have the same number of fans, home and road, this year, so for the most part I look at USF as an extremely tough opening weekend opponent for us, because you have a three-game series and they’re just preparing for us.
"We’ve always gone down for a tournament, and I think the Gators are a really good tournament team. We’re super hard to prepare for, and I think in a three-game series the playing field becomes a little more even, because now you can just focus on us.”
All four defeats last season (23-4) came against top-25 opponents, and the Gators have much of the talent from 2020 back in the fold for the current campaign, including three-time All-American and preseason All-SEC first baseman Kendyl Lindaman, the NCAA’s current leader in RBIs as she enters her fifth season with the Gators.
Lindaman, who also is an active NCAA leader in games played (third with 212, and counting), home runs (2nd with 62), walks (2nd with 176) and total bases (5th with 440), said it wasn’t a difficult decision to return to UF for another round.
In fact, it was hardly a discussion for the Ankeny, Iowa, native, and many of her fellow seniors shared her sentiment when it came to returning to Gainesville for the extra year granted by the NCAA.
“It was actually really simple for me. I was actually going to be working for the team, so Coach Walton said, ‘You can either play, or you can work, it’s really up to you,’ and it was just an immediate decision for me just to start playing again,” Lindaman said. “Us seniors that came back for this fifth year, we talked about it, how we had unfinished business. We want to go out on our own terms, and we want to go out together, so we weren’t ready to give it up quite yet.”
That doesn’t mean the waiting process, or the preparation process even, has been straightforward for Lindaman and the Gators, which is why there may be a bit more of a buzz around the opener than normal, seeing as Saturday’s return to the diamond serves as both a culmination of Florida’s patience and a commencement of an opportunity to improve through meaningful competition.
“There’s a lot of excitement, not only from me but the entire team. We kind of joke around that we’re tired of playing each other, we just want to be a team ourselves again,” she said. “But we’re being serious. We think back to our last game — it’s almost been a year since we’ve played as a team, and it’s been hard just hitting off the same pitchers, the pitchers throwing to the same batters, so we’re all super excited for this weekend just to get out there and finally feel like a team again.”