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Loaded With Motivation, Reloaded On Offense - Florida Gators

Loaded With Motivation, Reloaded On Offense - Florida Gators

Coach Tim Walton will take an 839-182 record into his 17th season with the Gators. Photo By:Hannah White Thursday, February 10, 2022

Loaded With Motivation, Reloaded On Offense

Chris Harry /Senior Writer The leftover disappointment of last year's loss in the Super Regional round, combined with some new power punch in the batting order has the No. 6-ranked UF softball team feeling pretty good about its prospects heading into the 2022 season. ShareGAINESVILLE, Fla. — Tim Walton and members of his staff did some reorganizing and house-cleaning of the KSP facility a few weeks back. A sort of Marie Kondo treatment of the storage spaces. It should come as no surprise that along the way the Florida coach happened upon a stockpile of trophies and hardware stashed away. There were multiple All-America and Academic All-America plaques, but the ones that really caught Walton's attention — and made for quite the pile — were the NCAA-awarded trinkets for each season the Gators led the nation in a category; particularly fielding percentage and ERA. "Oh, my gosh, it was just incredible how many of them, especially over the last 10 years," Walton said. Without question, the combination of pitching and defense has defined the best of the Gators in recent seasons. They're on a 10-year run of posting team ERAs under 2.00, including two seasons under 1.00. Keeping teams from touching home plate has not been an issue. As for Florida batters getting on base? There were no piles for those plaques. In 2021, UF batted a collective .277, the second time in three seasons the Gators were under .280. Florida failed to advance to the Women's College World Series for just the third time since 2008. Bummer, yes. "We had one bad week," Walton said. True that. Florida went 45-11 overall and 19-5 in the mighty Southeastern Conference to claim a share of the league's regular-season title for the sixth time in the last nine years. The Gators did so by winning every best-of-three series on the schedule — until the last one. Unfortunately, that was in the NCAA Super Regional against league rival Georgia. UF was swept at home, losing a pair of shutouts, combining for just seven hits and managing to get just three runners as far as second base. It made for an awfully anticlimactic end to a SEC-championship season, but it also left an awful lot of motivation and determination in the clubhouse. "I think it definitely fuels us for this year," said senior third baseman Charla Echols, who led the team in hitting (.375), home runs (15) and RBI (55) last season, but went 0-for-6 in the Super. "I think everything we do we do today is with that [series] loss in mind, and how close we were to making the World Series. This year's team has a little different mindset of how we go about our business on the day to day. I think we're prepared."That's not to suggest past UF teams were not prepared. On the contrary, Walton's teams are meticulously detailed and always on top of the fundamentals, especially on defense. But he also is not blind to where the Gators need improvement, as they prepare for Friday night's 2022 season opener against Illinois State in the USF-Rawlings Invitational at Tampa. Walton hasn't won 962 games and two national championships — and made trips to Oklahoma City practically a routine around here — without a lot of self-reflection. "With the realization of being able to sustain success, you have to evaluate everything in your program. We do that when it goes good and we do that when we need to get better," said Walton, who had lengthy sit-downs with everyone at the facility during the offseason. "I've adopted an internal mantra of my own: 'Don't tell me what you can't do, show me what you can do.' For so many, it's their nature to talk about what we can't do. I don't want to hear our problems anymore. I want to hear about how to fix them." The Gators, despite losing a circle lynchpin in Katie Chronister believe they'll be strong again with their pitching and defense. The fixing emphasis will come at the plate. UF's situational hitting needs to improve. "It's about knowing yourself, knowing you've taken the swings in [batting practice] and know the team has your back. From there, it's confidence," redshirt-junior infielder Skylar Wallace said. "Step up there and know that you were built for the moment. It's just another at-bat." Wallace was talking about hitting in clutch situations. She's been in a few. Wallace sat out last season per SEC rules after transferring from Alabama, but as a sophomore she ranked in the SEC's top 10 in runs per game, runs scored and fewest strikeouts. Wallace, a member of the 2020 USA Under-19 national team, figures to replace big-swinging Kendyl Lindaman at first base, but has the glove to play all over the field, if need be.With Wallace at first, golden-glover Hannah Adams at second, and Echols at third, the Gators have a trio of veteran infielders to help lock down the defense. They expect freshman shortstop Reagan Walsh, a top-shelf hitting/fielder prospect from Rodondo Beach, Calif., not only to fit right in, but provide the team some serious pop in the batting order. Walsh, who hit a team-high .500 with 22 RBI in the fall, is a product of the renowned Batbusters club that sent the likes of former UF superstars Francesca Enea and Amanda Lorez to the east coast. Some context: In SEC play last season, the Gators had a trio of plus-.300 hitters in the top half of the lineup, but a trio of sub-.200 hitters in the bottom half. They had to work to manufacture runs. Walton had 10 different UF players bat at least .300 during the seven-game fall exhibition season. He's confident the '22 team will be better at turning the lineup over, with the Adams, Wallace, Echols, Walsh and a 100-percent healthy Cheyenne Lindsay sprinkled in the top half. Last year, it was the Lindsay, who hit .327 and led the team with 13 stolen bases, positioned in the No. 9 spot. In the fall, Lindsay was hitting mostly sixth, with freshman Kendra Falby, a speedy slapper from Odessa, Fla., positioned in the No. 9 spot to get back to Adams. If Falby can consistently get on base, Walton ball-parked the team's run production could increase by "at least" one per game. "I think we'll have a more dynamic offense," Echols said. "We can do more things. We're faster, more powerful and will have people who can hit throughout the lineup." In the circle, right-handed senior Elizabeth Hightower returns after a third-team All-America season when she posted a 17-6 record, with a 1.61 ERA, 122 strikeouts and 49 walks. So is Natalie Lugo (17-3, 1.74 ERA). That would be a decent duo for depth as is, but UF also added freshman Lexie Delbrey, from Bainbridge, Ga., whose early returns are hinting at the best newcomer to the UF circle (dare say it) since Kelly Barnhill in 2016. "I'm not very vocal, but I think I can help," the soft-spoken Delbrey said. Echols spoke up for her: "She's got a lot of out-pitches and a lot of stuff to keep you off-balance. She's going to bring it."For now, of course, it's all projection, but not for long. After the opener Friday, the Gators will dive right into things with a game against No. 16 Michigan on Saturday, then a matchup against host USF, which came to town for the NCAA Tournament last May. SEC play is a month away. "We're deeper and a lot more diverse," Walton said. "Excited about the potential." No more talk. Time to show. There's room for more hardware, too. Much more.Print Friendly Version

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Loaded With Motivation, Reloaded On Offense - Florida Gators