Florida softball: A look at the Gators heading into the 2023 season amid high expectations

Ainslie Lee
The Gainesville Sun

Last year was different for the Florida softball team.

After dropping the series against Alabama, Florida head coach Tim Walton expressed his frustration, revealing that for the first time since spring training in 1997, he was running again.

"The whole season has beat me down," Walton said after the series against the Crimson Tide. "It's just not the same that I want it to be."

Weeks later, Walton found himself on a Southwest flight coming back from Louisiana with a pretzel-wrapper crown sitting on his head. Meanwhile, his team clamored for an on-flight dance party to celebrate Walton’s 1,000th career victory, which was achieved on May 1 in a 2-1 win over LSU.

"The lady had a disco ball, she had a sound bar and all of a sudden I hear my name to come up front," Walton said in an interview following his 1,000th-win milestone. "Dancing wasn't going to happen. No shot."

And all of that, both the lows and the highs, made for the ingredients of a season that ended in the Women’s College World Series – the Gators’ 11th appearance in program history and first since the 2019 season.

Now, as always, the expectations are high for Florida as it gets its 2023 season underway.

The Gators opened on Friday night in Tampa, playing Boston University in the USF-Rawlings Invitational.

Here’s what you can expect from the Gators this spring.

Florida returns familiar faces, adds depth

During a bus ride late last season Walton asked his team who all had been to the Women’s College World Series.

I think four people raised their hand last year,” Florida sophomore outfielder Kendra Falby remembers.

If Walton were to ask that same question now, he’d see that all but four would have their hand raised as the Gators add four new faces in Sam Bender, Pal Egan, Olivia Gigante and Kaila Pollard.

Gigante and Pollard, both freshmen out of California, came to Gainesville with a handful of accolades from the high school and club level.

Meanwhile, Bender, a graduate transfer, comes by way of Tennessee, where she spent her last three season on the Volunteers’ pitching staff.

And finally, Egan, who bears the affectionate nickname ‘JUCO Bandit,’ also joins the Gators as a graduate transfer after a wildly successful two-season stint at Texas A&M - Corpus Christi, where she hauled in a number of awards and broke countless program records.

They bring a lot of different perspectives.

"We have the freshmen, Kaila Pollard and Olivia Gigante, who are fun and light … they keep things young and make me feel like I’m literally 18 just like they are,” said redshirt junior Skylar Wallace. “And then you have people like Sam Bender and Pal who are the same age as me, but yet they come in ready to work and get after it. I just think it balances out the team with the seriousness and the fun.”

Gators’ lineup will be strong suit

Once upon a time, college softball games were often decided in low-scoring affairs. When Florida won its last national championship in 2015, the Gators topped the Michigan Wolverines in three games by a combined score of 7-5.

Last season, Oklahoma beat Texas in two games by a combined score of 26-6 as the Sooners captured their sixth Women’s College World Series title.

“I would definitely say the game of softball is more of a hitting power right now than pitching,” said Wallace. “Not to discredit the pitchers at all, they do a lot of the work too, but it’s just become a game of hitting. If you can really hit, it’s going to go in your favor.”

And fortunately for the Gators, they boast a deep lineup capable of making some noise in 2023.

Of the nine-woman lineup Florida used in its final game of the Women’s College World Series last spring, seven batters return, including three of the Gators’ top five hitters in Falby, Wallace and fifth-year senior Charla Echols. They all were named to USA Softball’s Collegiate Player of the Year Top 50 Watchlist, as well as taking spots on the preseason All-SEC team.

“For us to be a great team, those three have to be great,” Walton said. “One of those three probably needs to be the SEC Player of the Year for us to be a great team. We have a good team right now.”

Of the trio, perhaps the one to keep the closest eye on is Echols, who found herself in the four-hole for much of last season.

A native of Newnan, Ga., Echols transferred from Michigan State in the 2020 offseason and immediately made impacts in Florida’s lineup and at third base.

In 2020's COVID-shortened season, Echols hit .417 – a number that has since dropped in back-to-back seasons. But don’t expect that to be the case as Echols approaches her final spring.

“I didn’t have a second thought about coming back,” said Echols. “I definitely want to have a better year than I had last year.”

And considering Echols still finished last season with a .307 average and a team-leading 59 RBIs, wanting to have a better year, which to her means being more consistent, speaks volumes about her expectations.

“You look back and you look at her season, that’s a really good softball season for 95% of the players in this country,” Walton said before adding that Echols dealt with a nagging injury to her hand and wrist for much of last season.

“Bat speed was way down at the start of the season,” said Walton. “We’re probably 10 mph faster this year than we were last year to start the season … Swing has been really good.”

Echols, Falby and Wallace aside, Walton believes he can string together a lineup that runs 13 or 14 hitters deep.

“We are a lot heavier offensively,” Walton said.

Florida to pitch by committee, lean on veteran defense

The Gators’ career strikeout leader, Kelly Barnhill, graduated in 2019.

Ever since, Florida has pitched by committee. Toward that end, the Gators return three pitchers in sophomore Lexie Delbrey, fifth-year Elizabeth Hightower and senior left-hander Rylee Trlicek, who has had an impressive offseason, Walton says.

Meanwhile, Bender and Gigante add depth to the bullpen.

Delbrey, who hasn’t seen action since last year’s World Series due to being banged up, is nearing her return.

“She’s the key component to changing the (opponent’s) offense,” Walton said of Delbrey. “She’s got the ability to be a double-digit strikeout kind of kid. That being said, she hasn’t pitched since that UCLA game, so it’s been kind of a question mark.”

Regardless of who pitches, the Gators will be able to find comfort knowing what they have on defense.

While Florida will be without its second-base stalwart in Hannah Adams, who graduated last year after five seasons in Gainesville, the Gators are confident in their defense.

“It’s going to take a lot of people to replace her,” said Echols, who is slated to return to third base. "But I don’t think we’re really looking to replace her either. I think we’re just looking for someone to do their job.”

Sophomores Sam Roe and Reagan Walsh, alongside the rookie, Pollard, could all see reps at Adams’ old post.

Roe and Walsh both appeared in the infield last spring while Adams dealt with a hand injury late in the regular season.

How to follow along with the Gators in Tampa

The Gators follow Friday’s season opener with a doubleheader Saturday as they face Boston College and Illinois State at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., respectively.

UF’s games can be listened to at

In its fourth and final game of the weekend, Florida will see the hosting USF Bulls at 1 p.m. Sunday in a game that will be aired on ESPN+.