Tuesday August 26, 2014 Two Donovan staffers headed for NBA
Updated: 1:21pm, August 26
Welcome to Harry Fodder!
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Billy Donovan has sent his share of the players to the NBA.
Now he’s sending staff members.
Mark Daigneault (left), who has served as Donovan’s assistant to the head coach the last four seasons, and Oliver Winterbone (below left), the basketball program’s video coordinator during that time, are leaving next month for positions with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Daigneault was named head coach Friday of the franchise’s OKC-based Development League squad, while Winterbone was hired to a post in the team’s front office.
This is their last week with the program.
During their time with the Gators, Daigneault and Winterbone played key behind-the-scenes roles in the winningest four seasons in UF history, as the team went 120-30, won three Southeastern Conference championships and advanced to four Elite Eights, plus one Final Four.
“Both of those guys are just great chemistry guys,” Donovan said. “Very bright, very knowledge, totally unselfish and always working for the greater good of the staff and the program. Anytime you lose really, really good people, that’s tough, but it’s a great opportunity for both of them and a chance to be a part of a really good organization.”
For Daigneault, the opportunity to become a head coach at the age of 28 -- and with a franchise as respected as the Thunder -- was too enticing to pass up.
A full-time assistant at Holy Cross at 23, Daigneault took a graduate assistant’s post at UF in 2010 and was promoted to assistant to the head coach heading into the 2012-13 season. His duties were multi-fold, with an emphasis on player development off the court.
“I’m going to an organization that values the strengths I bring to the table,” Daigneault said. “You’re only as good as your opportunities and I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of opportunities here to make this position what I wanted and get out of it what I wanted, but I never would have been able to do that I not been empowered by Coach Donovan, the staff and these players.”
The Thunder’s D-League squad, the Tulsa 66ers, is relocating to OKC and will operate out of the club’s headquarters, which allow Daigneault to be involved with the team -- as in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, etc. -- on a regular basis.
The career track for Winterbone, 31, always has been with an eye toward the NBA. His innovative approach in his video presentations and application of advance metrics made a huge impact on the program and how the coaches broke down and analyzed results.
Now he’ll be breaking down personnel and analyzing statistics for Thunder executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti, regarding as one of the cutting-edge executives not just in the NBA but in pro sports.
“One of the beauties of working for Coach Donovan is that he gives you a lot of freedom to kind of do your own thing and be innovative and it’s a freedom that allowed me to dive into areas I’m really excited about,” Winterbone said. “This organization here [at UF] is as professional as it gets at the college level. And to have worked for a future Hall of Fame coach like him, and seeing how he manages his people and his players, that’s knowledge that I will carry with me.”
Donovan is in the process of searching for replacements for the two.
"The one thing you want to be careful of is trying to replicate and wanting people just like Mark and Oliver," Donovan said. "You want to bring in guys to both of those postions that bring value, but through their own unique strengths and talents. That’s what we’ll try to do."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- OK, we’ll go ahead and give you Boise.
Now, quickly, name the second-largest city in the state of Idaho.
Answer: Nampa, as in rhymes with “Tampa.”
After Boise, home to 205,671, according to the 2010 Census, the metropolis of Nampa checks in at 81,557. Rounding out the state’s top 10: Meridian, Idaho Falls, Poctatello, Caldwell, Coeur d’Alene, Twin Falls, Lewiston and Post Falls.
Then comes Rexburg at No. 11. Of course it does.
And Moscow, home to the University of Idaho (photo above), checks in at No. 12 with a population of 23,800.
The crowd Saturday night inside Ben Hill Griffin to see the Florida Gators open the 2014 season against Idaho figures to be at least three times bigger than the visiting school’s hometown. Not that the Vandals, out of the FBS, haven’t seen that sort of environment before. Last Nov. 23, they visited Florida State.
They lost 80-14 on the way to a 1-11 season.
If you’re a hard-core college football fan, you probably knew that last fact about Idaho. This installment of “Harry Fodder” hopefully will serve to educate Gator fans with a bigger-picture look at UF’s opening-day foe.
For example, does the name W. Mark Felt ring a bell?
Felt was born in Twin Falls in 1913 and graduated from Idaho in 1935 and went on to a career in the FBI -- a right-hand man to J. Edgar Hoover -- and eventually rose to Associate Director, the second-highest post at the Bureau.
It was from that position, Felt clandestinely spoon-fed Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward information that ultimately led to the downfall of President Richard M. Nixon following the Watergate scandal.
You may know Felt as “Deep Throat.”
In failing health, Felt was outed (waving from his front door, right) as our nation's most famous whistleblower in 2005 by his daughter, who wanted the world to know how famous her father really was.
Here’s a clip depicting a Woodward meeting with “Deep Throat” from the film “All the President’s Men,” simply one of the finest and smartest films ever made.
Memo to youngsters: Rent this movie, if for nothing else, its historical significance. Be warned, however, not one building gets blown up.
In the meantime, get to know a little more, GatorZone blog style, about the place called “U of I.”
UNIVERSITY OF IDAHO
Founded: Jan. 30, 1889
Colors: Silver and gold (honoring the state’s mining tradition)
Mascot: Joe Vandal (right)
Conferences: Sun Belt (football) and Big Sky (all other sports)
Of note: In 2012, Forbes ranked the University of Idaho 154th in the nation among research universities, while U.S. News & World Report placed UI at 85th among the nation’s best public universities and 160th overall.
ABOUT IU FOOTBALL
All-time record: 443-568-26 (.440)
Conference championships: 10
Playoff appearances: 11 in Division I-AA and FBS classification combined
Playoff record: 6-11
Home stadium: Kibbie Dome (16,000)
Coach: Paul Petrino (2nd season, and yes, Bobby’s younger brother)
All-time bowl record: 2-0 (Beat Southern Miss 42-35 in 1998 Humanitarian Bowl at Boise; beat Bowling Green 43-42 at 2008 Humanitarian Bowl at Boise)
FAMOUS FORMER IU FOOTBALL COACHES
The Vandals gave Erickson his first head coach job in 1982 at the age of 34. In four years, he went 32-14, including a 4-0 mark against rival Boise, and three times took the program to the Division I-AA playoffs before bolting to become coach at Wyoming. Erickson went on to some pretty big things at Washington State and Miami. Not so much in NFL.
John L. Smith
Like Erickson, Smith got his first head coach’s post at IU, where he went 53-21 over six seasons and won two Big Sky Conference championships. He twice coached the Walter Payton Award winner, given annually to the best I-AA player in the nation, in quarterbacks John Friesz and Doug Nussmeier. Smith parlayed success at Idaho to head posts at Utah State, Michigan State, Louisville, Weber State (shortly) and Arkansas.
FAMOUS IU ATHLETES
Dan O’Brien: Won the decathlon at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta (right).
Tom Cable: Offensive linemen for the Vandals, went on to become head coach for three seasons (2008-10) for the Oakland Raiders, with whom he posted a 17-27 mark.
Mike Iupati: Offensive lineman and first-round pick (17th overall) of the San Franciso 49ers in 2010. A Pro-Bowler in 2012 and helped Niners reach the Super Bowl that year.
Gus Johnson: By way of Boise Junior College, Johnson was the nation's No. 2 rebounder during the 1962-63 season at 20.3 per game (he once cleared 31 rebounds in game vs. Oregon). A second-round pick of the Baltimore Bullets in '63, Johnson was a five-time NBA all-star over his 11-year pro career and won an ABA title with the Indiana Pacers.
Jerry Kramer: Starting offensive guard for Vince Lombardi’s great Green Bay Packers championship teams of the 1960s. It was Kramer who Bart Starr followed into the “A” gap for the game-winning touchdown as time expired in the legendary “Ice Bowl” game at Lambeau Field.
Dan Monson: He was a star wide receiver at Moscow High and went to play at IU before a knee injury ended his career. Monson focused on a coaching career and eventually migrated to basketball, where he became head coach at Gonzaga -- including the below game. Advance apologies to Billy D.
Mark Schlereth: Super-credible NFL analyst on ESPN. He was a 10th-round pick from Idaho in 1989 and went on to start on offensive lines for three Super Bowl champions: one in Washington (1991) and those John Elway- and Terrell Davis-led back-to-back Denver teams (1997-98). Known as the ultimate tough-guy, having undergone 29 knee surgeries in his career.
Bill Stoneman: Right-handed pitcher who threw two no-hitters, both for the Montreal Expos, during his eight-year major-league career. The first came in 1969 against Philadelphia in just his fifth career start and just the ninth game in the expansion Expos' history. His second came four years later against the New York Mets. In 1971, Stoneman finished third in the National League in strikeouts (behind only Tom Seaver and Ferguson Jenkins) to go with 20 complete games.
Wayne Walker: Three-time Pro-Bowler, one-time All-Pro while playing both linebacker and placekicker over 15 seasons for the Detroit Lions (1958-72).
OTHERS NOTABLE ALUMNI
Holden Bowler: He was a professional singer on a South America cruise line when he met and befriended a young aspiring writer who vowed he'd one day write a novel and name the main character "Holden." Yes, the writer was J.D Salinger. Yes, the character became Holden Caulfield. Yes, in "The Catcher In the Rye."
Bill Fagerbakke: Regular on the sit-com “Coach,” playing Dauber Dibynski, but (apparently) more famous for voicing Patrick Star (right) in “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Sarah (Heath) Palin: As a point guard at Wasilla (Alaska) High, she was known “Sarah Barrcuda” while leading her team to the state basketball championship. She then after bounced around to four colleges before finishing up at IU with a degree in journalism and in 2008 became the most famous women on the planet ... for a few months.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- If you happen to be at the Publix on 34th Street Sunday and see a short but stout young man bagging groceries, give that kid an “Atta Boy!”
It’ll be the second-best thing Michael McNeely received this weekend.
McNeely, a wide receiver, and placekicker Frankie Velez lived out childhood dreams Friday when Florida coach Will Muschamp announced after practice the two walk-on players would be placed on scholarship this season.
Immediately, the pair was mobbed by their teammates.
“I didn’t cry, but oh my gosh,” an emotional McNeely said mere moments after he learned his tuition would be paid for. “I was overwhelmed there.”
“It’s like the greatest day of my life,” said Velez, who was hoisted into the air by a mob of a fellow Gators (pictured right). “This is insane.”
Not according to the UF coaching staff. McNeely and Velez have put their value on tape. And in games.
McNeely, a fourth-year junior from Clearwater, Fla., played in all 12 games last season on special teams and will be a key member of the kicking-game squads again. Velez, a fifth-year senior out of Ocala., Fla., went 6-for-8 on field goals and converted all six extra-point attempts in 2013 and is in a battle with Austin Hardin to be the team’s starting placekicker when the season opens Aug. 30 against Idaho.
Muschamp made it clear. This wasn’t a gift, but a reward.
“My favorite day of the year,” said Muschamp, who tracked a similar path as a walk-on safety from Rome, Ga., in the early 1990s, eventually earning a scholarship at the University of Georgia. “Those guys certainly deserve it. They’ve put their time in and there’s nothing I enjoy more than giving a guy a scholarship. In life, it’s about earning respect and that shows you’ve proven yourself to your staff and to your teammates. This is a statement.”
Is it ever.
Velez recalled his first visit to the UF football office after a decorated career at Ocala Trinity Catholic. He was told the chances of ever getting on the field for the Gators were 1 percent.
Now there’s a 99 percent chance he will play -- and 100 percent on scholarship.
“My mom and dad have always given me what I needed, but it’s going to feel good this year to actually help them out with that -- and not have to ask them for money,” Velez said before leaving the field to call his mother with the news. “She’s going to freak out.”
With the opener a week away, Muschamp gave the Gators the weekend off, with some players heading home to be with their families. Others will stay in town.
One is scheduled to work at Publix.
“If you come by Sunday afternoon,” McNeely said, “I’ll be there.”
He’ll be the one with the mile-wide grin.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The list of the 15 Florida student-athletes who graduated Saturday included quarterback Jeff Driskel, track and cross country standout Cory McGee, and national-champion gymnast Marissa King.
It did not include Jeremy Ulmer. Oh, but he counts.
Rather than take part in commencement ceremonies at the O’Connell Center, Ulmer spent the day with his family and friends at his home on the Suwannee River.
At 44, that was the celebration that felt right.
“I’m looking forward to hanging that diploma on my wall, though,” Ulmer said.
More than 22 years after taking off his Gators basketball uniform for the last time, Ulmer, a seldom-used reserve off Lon Kruger's first team, completed work toward his UF degree in sociology this summer. Hey, Kruger always put a heavy emphasis on academics and graduating players. And Billy Donovan just sent six of his 2013-14 players across the stage.
So what if Ulmer was a little late to the party?
It took a little prodding from a former academic advisor, but give credit to Tom Williams and UF's Office of Student Life for encouraging and motivating Ulmer to finish what he started. And, of course, credit Ulmer for rolling up his sleeves and getting the 30 hours he needed. Some classes he took at night, making the hour-plus drive after long days overseeing his construction business; others were done on-line. In the end, it was all worth it.
Now Ulmer hopes to fulfill his goal of becoming a teacher at Live Oak Suwannee High School, where he already serves as head basketball coach (pictured right, with son Blake).
“I could not have done this without Tom Williams helping me through the very complicated process,” said Ulmer, who ran into Williams at a high school tournament in 2010 at nearby Santa Fe Community College and got to talking about going back to school. “I’m fortunate to have been a scholarship athlete at UF and fortunate that UF cares enough about its athletes to help them so many years later.”
Even the most rabid and longtime Florida basketball fan may not recall Ulmer.
He was a 6-foot-9 junior college transfer from California when he signed with UF in 1990. Kruger, who was hired in April of that year, needed to scramble to add players to his first roster late in the recruiting season. Enter Ulmer, who averaged 12 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks a game at Sacramento City JC, and was part of a six-man signing class that also included Craig Brown and Martii Kuisma.
Ulmer didn’t play much during his two seasons (he totaled 22 points and 25 rebounds in 22 games) but he was a favorite of the student section for his likeness (see left) to “Vanilla Ice.” More importantly, he was part of a program that Kruger raised from the ashes of NCAA probation and led to the semifinals of the National Invitational Tournament -- and a date with Virginia at Madison Square Garden -- in just his second year. That season helped lay the groundwork for the historic Final Four run of 1994.
Once out of school, Ulmer played professionally in Cyprus and Sweden before returning to North Florida, marrying his college sweetheart and settling in Live Oak, where he started a construction business. His work with the local youth sports leagues there eventually got him the job as varsity hoops coach at Suwannee.
“It’s great to have built a successful program,” Ulmer said. “It’s rewarding to pass my knowledge down to these players.”
Now he’ll have even more knowledge to give.
And the official paperwork to prove it.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- After the 2012 season, Mike Peterson walked away from a 14-year NFL career far from certain what was next in his life.
More football, as it turned out.
Like so many former players, Peterson (left) was drawn back into the game he loved and now is looking to pursue a career in coaching. His latest career track began as an undergraduate student assistant at UF in 2013, which led to an NFL internship this summer.
“Best move I could’ve made,” he said.
Heading into Gators preseason camp, Peterson was fresh off spending two weeks with the St. Louis Rams as part of the Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellowship, a 27-year-old program that temporarily pairs aspiring coaches with NFL teams for the early stages of training camp.
One of the most respected Florida defensive players of the 1990s, Peterson played middle linebacker for UF’s first national championship team in 1996, blossomed into an All-Southeastern Conference performer and an eventual second-round draft pick. His NFL career took him from Indianapolis to Jacksonville and Atlanta, with 883 tackles, 21 1/2 sacks and 19 interceptions over 196 games along the way.
Peterson, 38, got his first taste of being on the staff side last season during his grad assistant stint, but was promoted to the strength and conditioning staff during the offseason.
He got a head start on it during his internship with the Rams, which he spent alongside John Simon (former Tennessee Titans running back now on staff at Southern Miss), Tony Brown (Titans defensive tackle now at Tennessee-Chattanooga) and Pierson Prioleau (former safety with five NFL teams, now a high school coach in Virginia).
Worth noting: Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh), along with Lovie Smith (Tampa Bay) and Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati) all came through the Walsh Fellowship program since its inception in 1987.
Here’s Peterson on his time with the Rams:
Q: What compelled you to do this?
MP: “Well, I’m trying to get into that arena. Being two years removed from playing, I’m trying to do it now versus sitting out for three or four years and trying to get back in.
So I’m just getting in there and looking to learn as much as I can and meet as many people as i can.”
Q: Who pushed you toward the internship?
MP: My coach in Atlanta. Mike Smith. He said it was a great program. I did my research and saw who all had done it. Once I saw some of the names to go through there, I realized it was something I really wanted to do.”
Q: What did you get out of it?
MP: “The best part about it, you get a chance to see everything. I mean all of it. You’re involved in parts of the team that you’d never do as a player. Like breaking down tape and making cut-ups. They involved you in the personnel side and guys on the draft board. They talk to you about evaluation and how they rank guys. Just watching and listening to how they form their roster and go about about their day-to-day work. As a player, those are things you really never see. ... Coaching is not for everybody. You get a chance to see, ‘Can I handle this? Is this something I want to do?’ I think that’s one of the great things about this internship and why guys so give it a try, see what it’s about about before you dive into this thing.”
Q: What about Rams coach Jeff Fisher?
MP: “Great guy. First-class guy. You could tell why so many guys love playing or him. I played against him twice a year for so many years [in the AFC South Division with Indianapolis and Jacksonville] and all I’d ever said to him was, ‘Great game, Coach.’ I respected him so much as a competitor, but now I respect him so much more just seeing how he runs an organization.”
Q: I have to ask. What was the Michael Sam training camp experience like?
MP: “You know what? All the buzz was more from the media side of it then the players in the locker room. Once everybody was there, it was football. All that other stuff we put off to the side. The media coverage hanging all over the team, that was crazy, but Coach Fisher wasn’t going to let that get out of hand.”
Q: What about him as a player?
MP: Well, we saw him last year. ... [Note: Sam had 3 sacks vs. the Gators in their loss at Missouri] ... He’s a get-off guy. Off the ball fast. Got a good motor. But the defensive line up there is loaded, so he’s going to have to sit back and do some learning early on. Probably a special teams guy.”
Q: What kind of coach do you want to be?
MP: “I don’t want to put a limit on it. I just want to get into this thing and see where it goes. It’s no different than when I got into it as a player. I just wanted a shot. As a coach, once I get in, I’ll be committed to it and take it as far as I can.”
Q: Plenty of your former Florida teammates have gone that path: Ike Hilliard, Jacquez Green, Johnny Rutlege, Zach Piller and Mark Campbell, for example.
MP: “You play the game so long and you think, ‘Well, I’m going to go as far away from it as I can -- but then you find yourself getting pulled right back in. It’s what we all know, man. We know the game so much. We love the game. The hardest part is breaking down that barrier with coaches who might think, because we played the game, we’re this or that way and can’t do this or that -- or don’t want to do it; don’t want to do the really hard part. And coaching is hard. But I’m just trying to work as hard as I can and learn as much as I can about hot do this. All this, right here, is the ground work.”
Updated: 5:15pm, August 7
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Dizney Lacrosse Stadium, site of Florida’s preseason football practices, doesn’t have room in the north end zone to set up a crane or tower to film practice.
Not that the UF video staff needed to an excuse to play with its new toy.
From the bleacher seats during the team's upcoming open practices -- which start with Thursday night’s 7:40-9:40 workout -- Gators fans will see a UFO-looking device hovering over the offensive and defensive line drills. If they pan the field, they’ll also see Reuel Joaquin, who heads up football video operations, with his eyes to the sky and operating a remote control flying camera drone that provides coaches with a unique perspective for their film study.
“It’s the first time, so we’re kind of just getting used to it,” Joaquin said during Wednesday night’s practice.
His “test flight” was a success.
With a Go-Pro camera mounted to its belly, the drone cranks four propellers to keep it airborne. From the ground, Joaquin uses a mobile device app on his iPhone to view the video feed and guide the drone to who and where it wants to film.
From 30-40 feet above -- and, yes, it can go much, much higher -- the drone footage provides a much broader variety of angles that give coaches different, birds-eye views of the spacing between linemen, rush lanes and pass protections, all of which can be rolled into it their evaluations.
Joaquin said he worked with the device over the previous four days before launching it Wednesday and sending it over the heads of Will Muschamp’s players and staff. The vertical moves weren't as difficult to master as the lateral ones. Either way, Joaquin made sure he had confidence in his remotve-control piloting skills before putting the drone into live action.
After all, the last thing center Max Garcia needs while calling out line protections is a flying saucer crashing on top of his helmet.
Didn’t happen. Not even close.
“I told Coach Muschamp we were thinking safety first,” Joaquin said. “I’m keeping it out of harm’s way.”
When its mission was done, Joaquin brought the robot down to the turf for a very soft (and impressive) landing. Good stuff.
And Thursday morning, Muschamp raved about the football during his staff meeting.
Towers, it seems, are so yesterday.
Updated: 11:16am, August 5
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The official release of the Battle 4 Atlantis bracket Tuesday morning, with Florida facing Georgetown in the opening round, is further evidence of Coach Billy Donovan’s commitment to playing challenging and attractive non-conference schedules.
Not to mention his making good on a promise he made to the guy in charge at the Southeastern Conference office.
The 2009 NCAA men’s basketball tournament included three teams from the SEC. That trio did not include Kentucky, the league’s traditional blueblood, or Florida, which was a mere two years removed a second straight national championship. By end of that tourney's first weekend, the three SEC teams -- LSU, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt -- were out, with two eliminated in the first round.
That’s when league commissioner Mike Slive (pictured in the center of 2013 team photo above) went to Donovan, then and still the dean of conference coaches, and made an impassioned plea to take the lead in the SEC’s effort to upgrade non-conference basketball schedules in an attempt to bolster RPI ratings and get more teams in the March Madness postseason party. The Gators, admittedly, had put together relatively soft schedules after saying goodbye to Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, et all, and the SEC’s first back-to-back national championship program of college basketball’s modern era.
Slive said that needed to change. Not just at Florida, but across the league. And not just for a few years, but annually.
UF’s six schedules since have reflected Donovan’s willingness to take on some of the marquee programs in the country, as well as appease the SEC within the confines of the UF coach trying to keep his non-conference sanity. Three games against nationally recognized programs in November balanced with five days Thanksgiving week at Paradise Island the Bahamas should address both fronts this preseason. [Note: Travel package information available here.]
There's also that road game at Kansas. And a neutral-site date against Wake Forest.
Oh, and that home game against Connecticut.
Here’s a list of Florida’s biggest non-conference games since the edict Slive sent down from the SEC office five years ago. The list does not include the always-tough showdown against rival Florida State that has been played annually since 1978 and is on the schedule this season for Dec. 30 at Tallahassee. It does include several of the Orange Bowl Classic games in South Florida, which vary as far as the strength of the opponent.
And while we're on the subject of Florida basketball, deadline to purchase UF 2014-15 season tickets is Aug. 15.
* vs Michigan State (Legends Classic, Atlantic City, N.J.) -- W 77-74
* vs Rutgers (Legends Classic, Atlantic City, N.J.) -- W 73-58
* vs Syracuse (Tampa, Fla.) -- L 85-73
* vs Richmond (Orange Bowl Classic, Sunrise, Fla.) -- L 56-53
* at North Carolina State -- W 62-61 (OT)
Comment: The game against NC State, won by Chandler Parson’s 60-foot prayer at the buzzer (right), actually was contracted two years earlier as the return game of a home-and-home series. After two straight trips to the NIT, this schedule helped the Gators, who went 21-13 that year, earn their first NCAA berth in three years.
* Ohio State -- L 93-75
* vs Kansas State (Orange Bowl Classic, Sunrise, Fla.) -- W 65-52
* vs UCF (Orlando) -- L 57-54
* at Xavier -- W 71-67
Comment: Playing UCF about 10 miles from its campus wasn’t very neutral, even though Gators fans out-numbered Knights fans that night. But former Donovan assistant Donnie Jones pulled off the upset. Maybe that helped Billy D get his players attention three weeks later when UF ended the nation’s second-longest home winning streak (30 games) by upsetting Xavier at Cincinnati. The Gators went on to win the SEC regular-season crown and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA field.
* at Ohio State -- L 81-74
* at Syracuse -- L 72-68
* Arizona -- W 78-72 (OT)
* at Rutgers -- L 85-83 (2OT)
Comment: By early February, when the Gators went to Kentucky and got drilled by 20, they’d already played the Nos. 1 (Wildcats), 2 (Ohio State) and 3 (Syracuse) teams in the country. That Florida team finished in a three-way tie for second in the SEC and went on to advance to the Elite Eight.
* vs Georgetown (Navy-Marines Corps Classic, Mayport, Fla.) -- Cancelled
* Wisconsin -- W 74-56
* Marquette -- W 82-49
* at Arizona -- L 65-64
* at Kansas State (at Kansas City) -- L 67-61
* at Yale -- W 79-58
Comment: The game against the Hoyas on a naval destroyer outside Jacksonville was a wonderful idea that was poorly executed. Scheduling a tipoff for 9 p.m., with the threat of condensation at that time of year, was insane. The game was cancelled at halftime with the Gators leading by four. A month later, UF went to Tucson to play in one of the nation's toughest venues. If you’re not impressed by a road game at Yale, go there and ask how many annual Top-10 programs would agree to play in 100-year-old gym that seat 2,500?
* at Wisconsin -- L 59-53
* at Connecticut -- L 65-64
* Kansas -- W 68-62
* vs Memphis (Jimmy V Classic, New York) -- W 77-75
* Richmond -- W 67-58
Comment: Wisconsin joined the Gators in the Final Four. UConn, which won on a second-chance buzzer-beater, went on to defeat UF in their Final Four rematch and upend Kentucky in for the national title. Kansas had the Nos. 1 and 3 overall picks in the NBA draft (Andrew Wiggins, right, and Joel Embiid). Memphis at Madison Square Garden had the feel of a Sweet 16 game. Great schedule that prepared the Gators for that remarkable, school-record run of 30 straight wins.
* Nov. 17 - Miami, 7 p.m. (ESPNU)
* Nov. 26 - vs Georgetown (Battle 4 Atlantis, Paradise, Bahamas), 9:30 p.m.
* Nov. 27 - vs either Wisconsin or UAB (Battle 4 Atlantis), 3:30 or 9:30 p.m.
* Nov. 28 - TBA (either Butler, North Carolina, Oklahoma or UCLA).
* Dec. 5 - at Kansas
* Dec. 20 - vs Wake Forest (Orange Bowl Classic, Sunrise, Fla.)
* Jan. 3 - Connecticut
Comment: A home-and-home series with the Hurricanes starts in Gainesville. Later in the month, the Gators can settle that incomplete battleship fiasco in the Bahamas, with possible games against two top-20 teams (maybe top 10) after that. Then the Jayhawks. Then the Demon Deacons. Did we mention there's a home game against reigning national champion UConn on the schedule, too?
Updated: 11:31am, July 25
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When Brad Culpepper got the call, he was a little flattered. Also a little floored.
He wasn’t sure what to think.
“I’m old news, man,” Culpepper said. “I’m not a football player anymore. I’m Monica-from-‘Survivor’s’ husband.”
Not Saturday, he won’t be.
Culpepper, an All-America defensive tackle on Florida’s first Southeastern Conference championship team and one of the most decorated student-athletes in UF history, will be front and center Saturday night as he throws out the ceremonial first pitch when the Tampa Bay Rays host the Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field.
It’ll be “Chomp At the Trop” night at the dome in St. Petersburg, a promo courtesy of the Rays and in conjunction with the Gator clubs of Tampa and Pinellas County.
“I asked them, ‘I get the first inning, right?’ ” said Culpepper, who was an all-state pitcher and still holds records for career wins and strikeouts from his days at Tallahassee Leon High School. “And I’m not going out there just to throw a lollipop. I’m firing it in there.”
If you know Culpepper (pictured right two years ago with son Judge), you understand. The guy has never shied away from the limelight.
He played nine seasons in the NFL, including six strong years for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Culpepper’s post-football life has kept a fairly high profile, too. His mug adorns billboards throughout the Bay area pitching his Culpepper/Kurland personal injury law practice. In 2012, his wife, Monica, appeared on the television show “Survivor” and last year the two were paired together in a couples version of the series.
But if you know Culpepper you also know he cherishes his UF roots and jumped at the opportunity to be a part of an event that will bring two fan bases -- Rays and Gators -- together to cheer on the home team.
Some proceeds from the event will go toward the Gator clubs' scholarships and be shared with Gator Boosters for athletic endowment.
“We’re always looking for creative ways to get out in the community and provide value to the region,” Tampa Gator Club president Sam Vranish said. “And this could be a good and fun day for the whole family.”
Though the event's 1,000 designated tickets sold out Thursday, the Bay area Gator clubs are encouraging fans to come to a pre-game gathering at Taps & Tequila (across from the stadium) starting at 3 p.m. A special designated parking area will be set up, with free parking to the first 100 fans either wearing Gator garb or with their alumni ID card. T&T will offer free hot dogs and drink specials.
Fans who bought advance game tickets will get a special orange-and-blue Rays cap.
The lid should go nicely with a uniform Culpepper had specially made for the event: a Rays No. 66 jersey with “Zimmer” on the back, in honor of late baseball icon Don Zimmer, who died last month in his 10th year as a senior advisor for the Rays.
“I was thinking about wearing my old baseball pants, too. The whole deal,” Culpepper said. “I used to pitch batting practice for my sons and I can still get it over the plate, believe it or not.”
Guess we’ll find out Saturday.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Assistant softball coach Jennifer Rocha had a simple request for her All-America pitcher.
Rocha is a big fan of actor Dwayne Johnson -- better known as “The Rock,” (and soon to be "Hercules," as in coming July 25 to a theater near you) -- and he happened to be on the list of celebrities with whom Hannah Rogers would be hobnobbing Wednesday night at the 22nd ESPY Awards in Los Angeles.
Rocha told Rogers, “If you see ‘The Rock,’ please get a picture.”
Rogers did one better. Way better.
She got one with “The Rock.”
“And he was super nice,” Roger said.
While millions watched the ESPYs, Rogers, alongside UF gymnasts Alaina Johnson and Mackenzie Caquatto, lived the ESPYs. The standout senior trio of student-athletes represented the Gators in being honored for winning the Capital One Cup as the nation’s top overall women’s program. Rogers, who led Florida to its first NCAA softball championship at the Women’s College World Series, and the duo of Johnson and Caquatto, who helped the Gators capture a second straight national title, got the star treatment this week, including a walk down the glitzy gala’s red carpet at the Nokia Theater.
“It was crazy,” Johnson said. “I never thought I’d be a part of something like that.”
The UF party was treated like royalty upon arrival. The ladies were picked up at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday in a Cadillac Escalade -- “with really, really dark tinted windows,” Johnson said -- and whisked about the city.
Joined by their counterparts, Max Lachowecki (soccer) and Garrett McGrath (fencing) from Notre Dame’s Capital Cup-winning men's program, the athletes spent Tuesday visiting spots like the Santa Monica pier, Beverly Hills and Hollywood to pose for photo ops with the cup.
Their driver also took the athletes through neighborhoods of mansions belonging to the stars.
When they arrived at the event, they hit the red carpet for -- of course -- a Gator chomp (left with former UF pitching star Stacey Nelson) and not long after the parade of stars began.
From Cameron Diaz to Kevin Durant to Kiefer Sutherland to Jessica Alba to Richard Sherman to Michael Sams to Clint Dempsey and, of course, the host of evening, Drake.
Rogers got a picture taken with former Arizona superstar pitcher and fellow WCWS Most Valuable Player Jennie Finch. Later, the UF contingent posed with former Gators swimming star Dara Torres, who Rogers joined this year as one of just four in school history to be named Southeastern Conference Female Athlete of the Year.
By the time the actual show was ready to start, the ladies had taken so many pictures their cell phones were dead.
When it came time to leave the event, the Florida contingent went to the front of the theater looking for its transportation. A driver approached them with a question.
“Are you with the Floyd Mayweather group?”
Yeah, it was that kind of night.
“It was all so cool,” Rogers said. “I can’t really describe it.”
Here are some pictures and tweets to help her do the job.
Alaina strikes a pre-ESPY pose.
Hannah with Jennie Finch.
The girls at the Santa Monica Pier.
Updated: 12:41pm, July 8
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Billy Donovan last week was named the best college basketball coach in the country by a 45-member panel of experts at ESPN.com.
Makes you wonder where he’d rate in the world rankings.
The University of Florida coach two weeks ago led Team USA on a rampage through the FIBA Americas U18 Championship at Colorado Springs, Colo. The Americans won their five games -- over Uruguay, Mexico, Argentina, Dominican Republic and Canada, respectively -- by an average margin of 56.8 points, with a couple 34-point victories making for the closest contests.
Donovan’s record as a USA Basketball head coach now stands at 19-0, to go with his three gold medals, including last year’s run to the U19 title in the World Championships, a competition Americans had won just three times over the last 26 years.
Like the previous two championships -- he also led USA to the 2012 U18 FIBA Americas gold -- this one made for a rewarding summer excursion.
“Getting a group of talented guys who all could have a chance to one day play in the NBA and getting them to see the bigger picture -- a chance to play for something bigger than themselves -- I really enjoy that,” Donovan, pictured above with USA assistants Sean Miller (Arizona), Ed Cooley (Providence) and Mark Daigneault (UF), said last week. “My goal with these kids, first and foremost, was to win the gold medal. After that, you want to give them an experience where they can grow and develop and accomplish something they’ve never experienced before.”
Given the lopsided outcome, winning the gold sounds easy.
But don't tell Donovan that.
While basketball is truly America’s game, the USA goes about fielding teams differently than its international counterparts. The programs in other countries establish a system, overseen by a committee, that moves its athletes through that system -- same offense, same defense, oftentimes the same personnel -- from age group to age group over the years, with the idea of being at their competitive peak in time for the World Championships and Olympics on the four-year cycles.
By the time the major competitions roll around, those teams know their systems and teammates like the back of their shooting hands.
The USA, meanwhile, issues invitations for tryouts annually and crunches its teams into a short periods under different coaches playing different systems.
And it has to come together in a week to 10 days.
While clearly superior on the athletic front, Donovan believes it’s the style of play -- in his case, chaos, uptempo and pressing -- that can prove to be the equalizer.
“Sometimes, when you end up playing these teams in the halfcourt, the game can get bogged down and [the opponents] are very capable of keeping it close and out-executing you because they’re a lot more organized,” Donovan said. “So you try to take a group of kids and utilize the talent level of strengths of these 12 guys in a short period of team by implementing a style that is totally disruptive and totally chaotic.”
Only four of Donovan’s players were bound of college this fall: forward Justus Winslow and point guard Tyus Jones, headed for Duke; Arizona forward Stanley Johnson; 7-foot center Myles Turner, headed for Texas.
The remaining eight players -- while all very good players -- were entering their senior year of high school.
“We sold our guys on having the depth and a number of guys we can play,” Donovan said. “Other teams were playing maybe six guys the majority of minutes and bringing two or three off the bench. Their best players were going a few minutes against some of our guys, then in comes another, then another, then another, and over a period of time they got worn down.”
That’s not always the case in international play, especially facing some of the Eastern European countries, but the depth, skill and a 94-foot game plan worked to the USA’s advantage and thus furthered Donovan’s global hoops profile.
A HEADSTART TO THE FALL
Closer to home, Donovan had some thoughts about a certain other basketball team.
His next version of the Gators.
After saying goodbye to a four-man senior class that went 36-3, won a second straight Southeastern Conference title and posted 30 consecutives wins en route to the Final Four, UF returns just one starter in guard junior Michael Frazier II, plus another two players who averaged at least 22 minutes per game in junior forward and SEC Sixth Man of the Year Dorian Finney-Smith and sophomore point guard Kasey Hill.
How the rest of the lineup shakes out -- and certainly sophomore center Chris Walker, Michigan transfer Jon Horford, Duke transfer Alex Murphy, plus a combination other role returning players and incoming freshmen will factor heavy in that equation -- is something to be determined in the offseason and preseason.
Florida opens the 2014-15 season Nov. 14 against William and Mary.
“One of the thing that can a happen is that a player can create a level of expectation in their mind based on someone not being there anymore and getting their minutes. That’s a mistake,” Donovan said. “We have a lot of guys who are good players, but are they willing to accept roles? There’s not one player on our team right now who will be a similar role to what they were in last year.”
The player who needs to make the most significant jump from last season to next just might be Hill (pictured above). That’s not an indictment of his freshman year performance. Hill, despite ankle and groin injuries that cost him seven games, had some terrific moments, including 10 assists in the Sweet 16 round victory against UCLA, and gave the Gators a nice look in allowing senior Scottie Wilbekin, the SEC Player of the Year, to come off the ball.
Hill did struggle to shoot last season (40.7 percent overall, just 14.3 from 3-point range), but his focus needs to be on doing everything better than he did a year ago; and do it all with more consistently.
And he has to emerge as one of the leaders of this team.
The start of the Summer B semester last week meant strength and conditioning coach Preston Greene’s offseason program is in full swing. NCAA rules allow players to get two hours of work per week with the coaching staff for individual instruction, plus another eight per week training and conditioning.
BILLY D TALKS GATORS SOFTBALL
Last month, in the hours before UF was to face Alabama in the second game of the Women’s College World Series championship round, Donovan called his softball coaching counterpart Tim Walton.
What was supposed to be a quick "good-luck" chat morphed into a 30-minute conversation.
Walton clued in Donovan of his plan not to start ace pitcher Hannah Rogers (with Walton left), who was unbeaten in seven NCAA games, including a win over the Crimson Tide the night before. Rogers, the senior and four-time All-American, had never beaten Bama twice in the same series and Walton planned on going with junior Lauren Haeger, with Rogers ready in relief.
But Walton also knew the decision would be questioned and second-guessed ... which it was.
“My point to him was that he had to sell it to the team,” Donovan said. “If they believed it and trusted his decision, nothing else mattered.”
In fact, Donovan relived for Walton his decision heading into the 2007 NCAA title game against Ohio State when he chose to put Joakim Noah on Greg Oden -- with no help in the halfcourt -- in an effort to eliminate the 3-point line.
The tact was different than how the Gators had defended teams most of the season, but Donovan thought Al Horford so thoroughly outmatched the Buckeyes on both ends; he also saw how Oden, OSU's All-America center, and been saddled with foul trouble in the semifinals against Georgetown and the public outcry that followed.
"Everyone was talking about the best player in the country being on the bench too much of that game," Donovan recalled. "I knew [Oden] was going to have maul guys to have fouls called against us."
As such, the Gators were willing to concede a big night for Oden.
Better yet, Noah accepted the challenge.
Oden got Noah in quick foul trouble, which the Gators were able to absorb through depth. Though Oden finished with 25 points on 10-for-15 shooting, the Buckeyes went 4-for-23 from long distance.
Florida won 84-75 to claim a second straight NCAA title.
“I told Tim that he knew his team better than anybody and whatever he thought he should do to do it, but to go to your team and explain it to them and make them understand,” Donovan said. “I don’t know anything about softball, but it was clear from listening to all his players that their heads weren’t spinning wondering what he was doing. They trusted him and they all said so after that game."
Updated: 11:27am, July 3
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The votes were tallied long before the 2014 NBA Draft last week.
You know, the draft that went two rounds and 60 picks without any of Florida’s four seniors being selected. You know, the four seniors that led the team to a 36-3 record, an historic and unprecedented 21-0 mark against the Southeastern Conference, plus a 30-game winning streak that ended in the Final Four.
Billy Donovan is the No. 1 college basketball coach in the country, according to an ESPN panel of 45 experts spanning the field.
ESPN.com began counting down the nation’s Top 50 coaches in May, a list that began with a tie for the No. 50 spot between St. Mary’s Randy Bennett and Baylor’s Scott Drew.
Some names along the way: Georgetown’s John Thompson III (46), Texas Tech’s Tubby Smith (39), Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger (31), Ohio State’s Thad Matta (20), Villanova’s Jay Wright (19), North Carolina’s Roy Williams (16) and VCU’s Shaka Smart (13).
In the last two weeks: Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim (12), Arizona’s Sean Miller (11), Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie (10), Michigan’s Jon Beilein (9), Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan (8) and Kansas’s Bill Self (6).
And in the last five days: Louisville’s Rick Pitino (5), Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (4), Michigan State’s Tom Izzo (3) and Kentucky’s John Calipari (2).
No. 1 was released Thursday.
It’s an excellent tribute to the Donovan, as well as his outstanding assistant coaching staff of John Pelphrey, Rashon Burno and Matt McCall.
Donovan, a 49-year-old icon approaching 500 career victories, is set to enter his 19th season with the Gators and now has to be considered not only the greatest coach in UF history, but the most appreciated and revered in UF history, given his something-from-nothing achievements and loyalty to the university.
I think even Steve Spurrier would agree.
Here’s some excerpted text explaining the panel’s decision to place Billy D at No. 1, courtesy of ESPN.com college basketball writer Eamonn Brennan.
“It's hard to think of a better testament to Donovan's current stature in the sport than this one.
In 2013-14, Donovan led the Gators to a 36-3 overall record with an unbeaten record -- an 18-0 regular-season and a conference tournament title -- in the SEC. The craziest thing about Florida's season was how little intrigue there was in a perfect conference record. Sure, the SEC (save, eventually, Kentucky and Tennessee) was bad. But Florida was also devastatingly good. The Gators held conference opponents to .93 points per possession while scoring 1.14. They averaged the league's highest two-point field goal percentage while simultaneously allowing the lowest.
The reward was the overall No. 1 seed, a champion's place in an overwhelming number of ESPN Tournament Challenge brackets, and, finally, a trip to the Final Four. When they arrived, they were the clear favorites, because they had everything: size, experience, balance and, most importantly, lockdown perimeter defense. That UConn upended the Gators -- and made us all wonder whether SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin wasn't badly injured, given how poorly he played on the defensive end -- may have been the biggest surprise in a tournament full of them.
Disappointing finish or not, 2013-14 was Donovan's master class. In October, the Gators were beset by injuries, illnesses and personnel problems. At the start of the season, the Gators had seven scholarship players available to practice. Wilbekin, after nearly being dismissed over the summer, was serving out an indefinite suspension. Eli Carter and Will Yeguete were still recovering from injuries. Michael Frazier II was being tested for mononucleosis. Chris Walker, the Gators' gem recruit, was academically ineligible. The Gators had forward Patric Young, three-year role player Casey Prather, and a whole lot of unknowns. ...
Within a few months, a team that could have been an abject disaster was instead one of Donovan's best. ...
The most impressive thing about all this? The fact that Donovan has done it at Florida. Before Donovan, the Gators' baskteball history was almost nonexistent. In 1932-33, the Gators fielded an SEC basketball team for the first time. For the next 47 years, they finished higher than fourth in the conference standings just four times. The Gators didn't have a full-time coach until 1960, and their only sustained success (under Norm Sloan from 1980 to 1989) led to the Gators' first postseason berths ever, and also a major NCAA scandal.
That was five years before Donovan arrived. Now, 19 years later, Florida is one of the nation's elite college basketball programs. It is a perennial recruiting destination, a near-constant winner. Florida is, and always will be, a football school. Attendance hasn't always been great. But Donovan has been so relentlessly good that even the most stubbornly disinterested alum can't help but sit up and take notice.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Those were some pretty spiffy images Sports Illustrated published Tuesday, courtesy of the architectural firm NBBJ, of what the renovated O’Connell Center would like.
Just one problem: NBBJ was not chosen for the job, hence the images weren't legit.
Instead, the O’Dome bid went to Davis Architects, CPPI Construction Management and TLC Engineering, which held its first meetings with University of Florida and University Athletic Association officials this week. Together, they discussed the ambitous project that will be highlighted by a splashy new main entrance, premium club seating, new and more open concourses, new concession stands, renovations of all offices and locker rooms, chair-back seating throughout the arena, a center-hung scoreboard and replay screen, and updated infrastructure.
Davis Architects, a 102-year-old firm out of Birmingham, Ala., designed Auburn Arena, one of the most intimate and sight-line pleasing venues in the Southeastern Conference. The Tigers moved into their new building in 2010.
Here are some photos of that site.
Davis Architects also designed the football stadium at Alabama-Birmingham, the north end zone expansion at Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium and the refurbishing of historic Rickwood Field, the nation’s oldest baseball park and home to the minor-league Birmingham Barons, having hosted the likes of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Dizzy Dean and Satchell Page over the years.
Closer to home, however, Davis made one happy Gator out of Coach Rhonda Faehn, who along with everyone associated with her gymnastics program has done nothing but rave about the $4.5 million renovation done to the O'Dome gymnastics (below), home to Faehn and her two-time reigning NCAA champions.
For a look at some of Davis Architects other projects, click on this link to the firm’s website.
Construction on the O’Connell Center is scheduled to begin in March 2015 and take approximately nine months. While the work is being done, the volleyball and the men’s and women’s basketball teams will play their home games at to-be-determined venues, including several dates around the state.
Dante Fowler, Jr. and the Gator football team got a surprise trip to the paintball fields Thursday.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Florida football team took a break from summer workouts Thursday afternoon for a little team bonding trip to some local paintball fields.
As the Gators gathered for a normal team meeting, George Wynn, who's in charge of football operations, broke the news to cheers from the players, who then filed into a bus and headed off to the colorful war zone.
“It’s important for our players and coaches to get together off the field, outside the stadium and the weight room,” UF coach Will Muschamp said. “We thought this was an excellent opportunity for our team to spend some time together in a fun, team-building environment.”
As always when football players get together, there was some competition involved. In addition to paintball, the players had some fun playing corn hole, horseshoes and even basketball.
"This is great for team chemistry, getting the players to come out here and do things outside of football and working out and getting tired of each other," junior Dante Fowler said. "This is just us coming out and mingling with each other, getting to know people and have fun with each other. I loved it. This was my first time playing paintball. A lot of people might not get to do stuff like this, so we were really having fun."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There’s a reason Billy Donovan’s name comes up when NBA jobs come open.
It has a lot to do with all those victories and championships the last 18 years, of course, but it has just as much to do with all those former Gators playing in the NBA.
Donovan reportedly rebuffed at least two NBA suitors -- the Minnesota Timberwolves and Cleveland Cavaliers -- since UF’s run to the Final Four this spring. Those franchises obviously honed in the fact that heading into the postseason the nine former Gators on NBA rosters tied North Carolina for the most of any college program.
On Wednesday, an ESPN.com Insiders post by basketball writer Jeff Goodman reflected a survey of NBA executives asking which college coach best prepared his players for the next level.
Donovan, currently in Colorado prepping USA Basketball’s U18 national team for the FIBA Americas Championships, checked in at No. 1.
Obviously, there’s something to be said for an NBA resume that shows the likes of Mike Miller, Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Chandler Parsons and Bradley Beal, along with the fact UF”s pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop offense, plus defensive concepts, are NBA-rooted and make for an easier transition.
“He runs a lot of pro stuff and integrates a lot of wrinkles,” said one NBA executive, wrote Goodman. “He has an innovative playbook. ... He just gets it.”
The entire list:
1) Billy Donovan (Florida)
2) Ben Howland (formerly of UCLA, but currently without a job)
3) John Beilein (Michigan)
4) Tom Izzo (Michigan State)
5) Fred Hoiberg (Iowa State)
6) Mike Krzyzewski (Duke)
7) Bill Self (Kansas)
8) Buzz Williams (Virginia Tech)
9) Rick Pitino (Louisville)
10) John Calipari (Kentucky)
11) Sean Miller (Arizona)
12) Tony Bennett (Virginia)
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As she fought back tears late Tuesday night, junior Lauren Haeger told of how she and some Florida softball teammates were standing in the outfield during batting practice the day before -- as in Monday; as in the first day of UF’s College World Series championship round against Alabama -- when a butterfly fluttered past.
Not just a butterfly.
"It was yellow," Haeger said. "It had to be a sign."
Heather Braswell loved yellow. Those yellow flowers the Gators wore as hair ties this season -- and were quite bright and prominent on ESPN the last couple weeks -- were in her honor. So were the "rally" Twizzlers the UF players twirled in the dugout. And the watermelon Sour Patch candy they chomped on.
Heather loved those, too.
And the Florida softball team -- this one and the five before it -- loved Heather. In 2009, Coach Tim Walton's program “adopted” her through the Friends of the Jaclyn Foundation, an organization that pairs pediatric cancer patients with college and prep athletic teams. She sat with them during games, visited in their clubhouse and threw out the ceremonial first pitch of the 2014 season (above) -- the one that ended with UF’s first NCAA softball title.
Heather, though, wasn’t there to see it. She died March 25 due to complications from a brain tumor. For more than five years, her cancer was in remission, but the disease returned last fall.
The Gators played in her memory.
“She was with us,” sophomore catcher Aubree Munro said. “Ask anyone on this team. She was here.”
The Braswell spirit was alive with the Gators; in more ways than one. Heather’s mother Terri was in Oklahoma City to watch UF win its five games by a combined score of 32-6 and sweeping Alabama in the best-of-three national championship series.
After UF’s 6-3 title-clinching victory Tuesday night, Terri was summoned into the middle of the post-game celebration and swarmed by the Gators (picture right).
“Heather was our friend and that’s what makes it so emotional,” Haeger said. “To have done this with her here would have been great, but we all really tried to focus on playing for something bigger than ourselves. That was our drive. Heather was that drive.”
When the team showed up at Pressly Stadium Wednesday night for its national championship pep rally, the initials “HB” were etched on the field behind the pitcher’s mound.
The last time those letters were on the field, the Gators held a moment of silence for Heather at their first home after her passing.
This time, she was part of a celebration.
A huge from-the-heart part.
“There was a power in just knowing that she was there with us. When we were struggling and someone got a base hit ... that was Heather,” sophomore second baseman Kelsey Stewart said. “I’m sad that it took something like that to find something bigger to play for, but if we had to have something inspire us it was going to be Heather and now we’re all thrilled to have done it for her.”
Updated: 4:29pm, June 3
OKLAHOMA CITY -- She came to the Women’s College World Series leading the Florida Gators in home runs and RBI, while hitting a robust .315 with a team-best 42 walks.
Yet going into Monday night’s Game 1 national-championship series against Alabama, UF designated player Lauren Haeger had just one hit in 10 trips to the plate and had left five runners on base in WCWS play.
Given the power numbers Haeger has put up for the Gators since arriving from Peoria, Ariz., it would have been easy to chalk up her performance as an anomaly, except that Haeger went 1-for-12 at the WCWS last year, struck out four times and left nine runners on base, as UF bowed out in three games.
So when Haeger whiffed and grounded her first two times up Monday, her combined numbers in OKC were 2-for-24.
And that’s a slump.
Which is why everyone in orange and blue was delighted to see Haeger fall in line with the rest of her hot-hitting teammates by knocking a single in the fifth and RBI double (pictured above) in the seventh -- both off Alabama starter Jaclyn Traina -- and after UF's 5-0 win making her first appearance at the post-game podium.
“The past couple games have been a struggle for me. I don’t know why, but it happens to all hitters and for me it just happens to happen at the World Series,” Haeger said after the defeat of the Crimson Tide moved the Gators within one victory of the program’s first NCAA softball championship. “I’m just just trying to go up there and keep it simple. My team believes in me.”
That’s a fact.
But this is a team, as Coach Tim Walton explained, that lean on one hitter to the point she feels pressure to produce. He wants hitters to get on base and thus commence the chess game Walton plays to manufacture runs.
“I didn’t look at it as a struggle,” said Walton, who loved how Haeger went about her business, came to hitting practice Monday morning and grinded away. “The only way you get better is if you work yourself out of it. I think that’s the key for all our hitters. We’re going to work. We didn’t come out here to hang out and eat funnel cake. We came here to win -- and then eat funnel cakes.”
BAMA’S BEEN HERE BEFORE
Since the WCWS went to the best-of-three championship format in 2005, three teams have lost the first game and gone on to claim the national title: Michigan over UCLA in ’05; Arizona over Tennessee in ’07; Alabama over Oklahoma in ’12.
Ten players on the current Tide roster were part of that rally two years ago, including Traina.
“We came back relentless and we were winning the little things,” said Traina, who was the MVP of that WCWS. “We were very aggressive, had a plan and bought into it.”
Alabama lost that first game 4-1, then won the next two 8-5 and 5-4.
“So we’re not too worried,” Tide coach Patrick Murphy said (his team pictured above, courtesy the Associated Press). “Obviously, we would like to win the first one, but since we lost the first one last time and won it all, it’s not a big deal to us.”
Murphy added that not playing Florida since back in March probably meant his lineup needed a game to feel out UF starter Hannah Rogers, who limited the Tide to just four hits on the way to a sixth shutout in seven NCAA Tournament appearances this season.
Considering Alabama only got through its order 2 1/2 times against Rogers -- who threw just 80 pitches and faced just four batters over the minimum of 21, thanks to a pair of double-plays -- it remains to be seen if the Tide have seen Rogers enough.
They did work Rogers for three hits in the seventh.
“You saw that we did make adjustments eventually. It did take us seven innings, but we did get to her and that’s big for us,” senior second baseman Kaila Hunt said. “That means we learned from our previous at-bats, which is what we need to do to have success [Tuesday night].”
SHE’S A WEB-GEMMER TOO
Obviously, Rogers has been sensational in the circle, but the 5-foot-10 senior helped her cause a couple times with plays that justify the UF coaching staff’s belief that Rogers is the best defensive pitcher in the country.
Rogers actually had five assists in the game, including when she started a 1-6-3 double play in the seventh. But it was the play off the bat of Marisa Runyon that was one of the defensive highlights of the night.
Runyon hit a semi-slow grounder to Rogers' left, toward first base. Rogers cut it off before second baseman Kelsey Stewart could charge it, gloving the ball (pictured above) and shoveling it from her glove to first baseman Taylor Schwarz.
The play beat Runyon, who dove head-first into first.
Yes, the Tide was that desperate just to get on base against Rogers.
AROUND THE HORN: The Gators are now 9-1 in the NCAA Tournament and have outscored their opponents by a combined 75-7, with eight of the nine wins coming by shutout. ... The outcome marked just the third shutout of Alabama this season. The Tide was held scoreless twice by Arizona (3-0 on Feb. 15 and 8-0 on Feb. 16) during the Easton Bama Bash in Tuscaloosa. ... Rogers has held NCAA opponents scoreless in 48 of her 49 innings, with Baylor’s 3-run fifth in Sunday’s semifinals the only inning a team has produced a run. Her ERA in the overall tournament stands at 0.50 to go with 28 strikeouts. ... UF is hitting a collective .311 in the WCWS, with sophomore center fielder Kirsti Merritt going 5-for-10 with six runs scored and junior outfielder Briana Little 4-for-11 with four runs. Third baseman Stephanie Tofft is 4-for-11 with five RBI.
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.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The question directed to Florida outfielder Bailey Castro during Friday night’s post-game news conference came from a Daily Oklahoman reporter who said he’d been covering the Women’s College World Series for a long time.
He added that he’d never seen a home run launched as far as the one Castro parked off Oregon’s ace Cheridan Hawkins in the second inning of UF’s 4-0 win over the top-ranked Ducks.
“It was a good pitch and I took a hack,” said Castro, the junior from Penbroke Pines, Fla., who went 3-for-4 with a pair of RBI in the game. “That’s kind of my thing. I take hacks. It felt nice coming off the bat, and I was smiling all the way, for sure.”
Felt nice? Guess so.
The rest of her team, though, wasn’t as impressed as the media gallery.
“She can hit it farther,” senior pitcher Hannah Rogers said.
Added Coach Tim Walton: “Usually she swings out of her shoes. She can hit it far, but that was the easiest swing I've seen her have.”
The ball left Castro’s bat like a rocket -- a dead-solid line drive over the bleachers in left-center field -- and was last seen disappearing down toward the ASA Hall of Fame Stadium complex field house.
And, yes, she was smiling (left) all the way around the bases.
It was quite the kick-starter for the Gators against the mighty Ducks. In fact, it was Castro who helped get her team going the night before when she smashed a two-run double into the right centerfield alley in the bottom of the first to push UF to a 3-0 lead against 17th-ranked Baylor en route to an 11-0 run-rule victory.
That was the hit that earned Castro and her teammates some funnel cake, as promised by Walton, but her hunger for WCWS pitching looks insatiable right now.
Through two World Series games, Castro is 4-for-6, with four RBI and a couple runs scored.
“We've been talking all year about line drives and that was my "go-to" play of the day -- to go up there with line drives,” she said. “It worked out well for me.”
Castro was one of the most sought-after power-hitting prospects in the country during her career at American Heritage High, where she led her team to a pair of state championships and was named Florida’s 2011 Class 3A Player of the Year. As a senior, she hit .618 with 16 home runs and every Southeastern Conference team wanted her bat.
A “grip-and-rip type” when she arrived at UF, according to Walton, the Gators had to work with her swing and only recently got her comfortable with the slapping concept.
Now she’s making some of the best contact of her career.
“More than anything, it’s helped her just calm down in the box,” Walton said. “She doesn’t have to think about mechanics, just timing. Timing is almost everything when it comes to hitting and [the slap] has taken the mental element out of the game.”
It's allowed Castro to do what she does best.
The one she crushed against Oregon, a change-up, might still be rolling somewhere across the Oklahoma countryside.
“I changed to the slap and I think that has been really effective for me,” Castro said. “I can stay on top of the ball a little more. [The home run] pitch was a little up in the zone, I kept my barrel above it, took an easy swing and it kinda went out.”
Updated: 4:56pm, May 30
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Somewhat lost in the post-game euphoria of Florida’s 11-0 bombing of Baylor was how game ended.
If you watched Thursday, you saw UF lefty pinch-hitter Chelsea Herndon come to the plate with no outs and the bases loaded with the Gators ahead 7-0 in the fifth inning, then promptly pound a 1-2 pitch over the centerfield fence for a walk-off grand slam.
That bears repeating.
In her first at-bat in the Women’s College World Series, the freshman hit a walk-off grand slam to advance the No. 6 Gators (51-12) into the winner’s bracket and a date Friday night against No. 1 Oregon (55-7-1).
It was a moment most kids grow up only dreaming about, but Herndon lived it. When asked to relive it, she humbly underplayed it.
“I went up there with a clear mind and I was calm,” said the rookie from Carrollton, Texas. “I wasn’t going to let the nerves get a hold of me. When I saw a good pitch, I took a hack at it.”
Did she ever.
Making Herndon’s game-winner/ender all the more rich was the fact it came off Baylor reliever Heather Stearns, who was Herndon’s teammate at Plano (Texas) Hebron High.
Stearns was a year ahead of Herndon as a prep and earned 2012 Texas Gatorade Player of the Year honors. She came into the WCWS with a 1.69 ERA, with 123 strikeouts to just 30 walks.
But she just happened to come up against a familiar face.
“I’d faced her a lot in practice, but I wasn’t going to let that get to me,” Herndon said. “We stay in touch, congratulated each other in making the the World Series and the success we’ve each had ... but that’s about it.”
Herndon wasn’t as decorated her former prep teammate, but the .530 average and single-season school records for hits (53), runs (46), RBI (44), triples (7) and stolen bases (20) was enough for All-State honors and the attention of UF coach Tim Walton.
On Thursday, Walton saw an opportunity to end UF’s first WCWS early and tabbed Herndon with the chance to do it.
All the Gators needed was a sacrifice fly to go home with a mercy-rule win.
They got a big fly, instead.
“How about a freshman in her first at-bat at the College World Series hitting a grand slam off one of her former teammates?” Walton said. “I thought that was good stuff.”
Make that, grand stuff.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Tim Walton arrived at Florida in 2006 and promptly led the Gators to the NCAA Tournament. Two years later, they were in the Women’s College World Series for the first time.
The Gators have been there six of the seven years since, including their current trek to the grounds of ASA Hall of Stadium, where No. 6 UF (50-12) faces No. 17 Baylor (47-14) in opening-round play Thursday at noon.
In its previous five trips, Florida came up short in its quest to win the program’s first national championship. Berths in the 2009 and 2011 best-of-three championship rounds ended with sweeps at the hands of Washington and Arizona State, respectfully.
So now what?
Here’s a look at three things that need to happen -- besides pitching and playing defense, which is the identity of this Florida team -- to give UF the best chance to stick around Bricktown a while and make a deep run into the eight-team, double-elimination bracket.
1) WIN THE FIRST GAME
If it sounds obvious, well, it’s because it is. But the ramifications of winning Game 1 -- more to the point, not losing Game 1 -- run deep.
A victory on the first day in OKC is a huge confidence and moral builder. It sends an internal message to the team that it belongs. Better yet, it keeps the team out of the loser bracket.
The Day 1 losers get a day off to rebound from the defeat, but that’s also a day to think about, stew on it and (worse) worry about. They'll also probably hear how it’s been 11 years -- UCLA in 2003 -- since a team lost its first game and crawled from the loser’s bracket to win a national title.
The Gators lost their opener last year, as ace Hannah Rogers walked three of the five batters she faced before Walton gave her a quick hook. UF trailed by three runs before it even batted and went on to lose 9-2. The Gators bounced back to defeat Nebraska in a 15-inning elimination game marathon the following night, but they were pretty much spent the day after that in a 3-0 loss to Texas.
In 2009, when the Gators won their opener, they strung three straight together and played for it all. In 2011, they won the first and hung around for seven games.
It’s the better, safer, more optimistic path.
2) MUCHO AT-BATS FOR STEWART
Walton says sophomore Kelsey Stewart (right) makes the UF offense go. The numbers bear that out.
Stewart, the first-team All-America second baseman who has started all 129 of her games with the Gators, leads the team in average, (.435), hits (94), runs (63) and stolen bases (34 on 39 attempts. When she’s on base it puts the defense on high alert -- on edge, too -- and Florida plays with a little more pop.
In the Super Regional win over Washington, the bottom of the UF batting order, namely catcher Aubree Munro and shortstop Katie Medina, out-performed their averages and got some really timely hits that turned the lineup over and put Stewart up to the plate.
This is a leadoff batter with 55 RBI. That’s third-most on the team.
Get her to up to bat.
3) COVER FOR HAEGER
Junior slugger Lauren Haeger (left) has been the big bat in the UF lineup, leading the Gators in homers in each of her three seasons.
But Haeger needs help around her.
Specifically, behind her.
Haeger is a threat to go yard every time she’s at the plate. Opposing teams know that, so they will pitch her accordingly. That means the batter behind Haeger, usually third in the lineup, needs to deliver or else Haeger will see very few pitches she likes to hit.
Last year, Haeger came to Oklahoma City hitting .336 with 18 homers and 70 RBI. In UF’s three games, she went 1-for-12 (.083), struck out four times and left nine runners on base. Clearly, she was pressing, knowing how badly her team needed to her to deliver.
But worth noting: Kelsey Horton, who batted behind Haeger in each of those games, went 0-for-9 with six strikeouts.
That hole in the middle of the lineup was contagious, as the Gators hit a collective .165 before in their three '13 WCWS bowing out.
Walton has used several players in that after-Haeger role, most recently Briana LIttle (.326, 5 home runs, 24 RBI). But Bailey Castro (.265, 7 homers, 26 RBI) and Kirsti Merritt (.289, 11 homers, 47 RBI) are candidates for that spot, also.
If Walton really wants to protect Haeger, he may toy with the idea of moving Stephanie Tofft (.356, 10 homers, 59 RBI) from second in the order to fourth. He has options.