Monday June 2, 2014 Walton pushed all the right buttons to get Gators to WCWS finals
Updated: 7:06pm, June 2
Updated: 7:06pm, June 2
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Six weeks into the 2011 college softball season, the Florida Gators were 30-1, unbeaten in Southeastern Conference and ranked No. 2 in the nation with league rival Georgia coming to town.
The Gators were feeling pretty good about themselves.
UF was swept at home by the Bulldogs, then swept again the following weekend at Kentucky for a fat six-game losing streak.
Coach Tim Walton saw hints of it coming. His team wasn’t on the details. Players were taking things for granted. Worst of all, he sensed an element of entitlement.
Following the first practice after that sixth straight loss, the Gators went to their locker room and found it, well, locked. Their memberships had been revoked and would remain that way until Walton witnessed some change in attitude, demeanor and work ethic.
“I just believed we were cutting corners,” Walton said, looking back on that season four years ago; a season that ultimately ended at the Women’s College World Series. “Believe me, when one of your players has to wear her practice uniform under her sweat clothes to go to class because she has nowhere to change ... well ... they figure out in a hurry what they have and how good they have it. It was a very beneficial lesson.”
OK, so I told you that story to tell you this one.
Think about it Monday night when Florida faces Alabama in Game 1 of their best-of-three series in the WCWS championship round.
To appreciate how far the Gators have come, let’s look back on just where they were in the 2014 midseason and what Walton had to do about it.
And what he didn't do about it.
On March 21, the Gators were ranked No. 1 in the nation when the ninth-ranked Crimson Tide came to town and set UF spinning on a run of six losses in seven games, low-marked by an ugly sweep at Tennessee and including a home defeat against rival Florida State.
Amid the skid, Walton was at home talking shop with his wife, Samantha, and wondering how he was going to fix things. She suggested going back to the 2011 playbook.
“Lock ‘em out,” Sam said.
Hey, it worked before, right?
Yes it did. That 2011 team responded by holding players-only meetings and practices, with seniors stepping up and making it clear to younger players how things were done at Florida; how playing college sports was a privilege, not a right. For Walton, it was a perfect button to push for that particular group. Those Gators righted themselves and made a run to the WCWS.
But Walton had no intention of taking such drastic measures for this current group. Not even close.
“Never once did I feel this team lacked an appreciation for what it had or wasn’t working hard enough or didn’t go about their business the right way,” he said. “We were just getting beat and I had to figure out why.”
Walton came to the conclusion his players lacked energy and enthusiasm; even looked tired. And since that’s not supposed to happen in April, he countered with something else that’s not supposed to happen in the middle of a season.
“We went to conditioning,” he said.
More like re-conditioning.
Practices began with runs with required times, just like in preseason. He made things a little harder, but the players responded. And because they responded, he allowed them to maintain that upbeat zest for fun that has defined this team. These Gators know how to keep their time together lively, but also when to flip and switch and get serious.
The Gators went on a 10-game winning streak. Though UF dropped two of three at home against Missouri late in the season, a sweep at Arkansas had Walton feeling pretty good heading into the postseason.
Then came a two-hit, 2-0 first-round elimination loss to Georgia in the SEC Tournament that completely threw Walton and his staff for a loop, forcing another re-boot.
Again, this wasn’t lockout-worthy stuff, but it was serious enough that Walton needed to make issue of it.
Upon returning from the SEC Tournament, the Gators had a team meal and the dessert course lasted about three hours. Walton made his players sit and watch the entire Georgia loss -- every pitch, every mound conference -- in real time, sometimes with rewinds for points of emphasis, especially when it came to hitting.
“I wanted them to see how bad some of their swings really were,” Walton said.
Back to work the Gators went.
Some went with lighter bats; others focused on slap technique.
Whatever it took, whatever it was, something collectively clicked. That much has been reflected not only in the wins (eight in nine NCAA games), but at the plate, where the Gators have averaged 7.7 runs and nine hits per game in tournament play. They've parlayed that offensive awakening with a red-hot pitcher (Hannah Rogers’ ERA in six tournament games is 0.85) and superb defense (5 tournament errors, none at the WCWS) for a chance to play for it all.
“I love this team,” Walton said. “But I loved this team even when we were going through our losing streak.”
Instead of getting locked out, the Gators got locked in.
Now look where they are.