Tuesday July 14, 2015 Indoor football facility on schedule for two-a-days
Updated: 11:08am, July 15
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HOOVER, Ala. -- Weather (and permit) permitting, the Florida Gators will be practicing indoors at some point this summer.
UF coach Jim McElwain got an all-encompassing facilities question during his podium appearance Monday at Southeastern Conference Media Days, with special attention focused on the state of the $15-17 million practice complex -- “a long-need and beautiful facility,” he called it -- going up on the site of the current practice fields, across from the O'Connell Center parking garage.
“It sounds like we’ll at least be able to get permit to be able to go spend a couple hours there as we go through two-a-days,” said McElwain, whose team opens fall drills Aug. 6. “That’s something that’s really exciting and it’s exciting for our guys.”
The indoor football facility is just a chunk of more than $100 million worth of University Athletic Assocation projects currently in the works. The football team not only will benefit from the new air-conditioned edifice this year, but also renovated dormitories and improved nutrition departments, both of which will be in place for fall 2015
And then there’s the $25 million renovation of the academic center at the Office of Student Life, a gem that Athletic Directory Jeremy Foley has trumpeted as a "game-changer" for the Gators.
“It’s about the players, it’s about helping them,” McElwain said. “We’re moving in the right direction -- and we got a long ways to go -- but it’s good to see that those things are happening.”
UF softball coach Tim Walton, alongside 2015 Women's College World Series MVP Lauren Haeger, addresses the crowd at Pressly Stadium during the team's June 4 pep rally celebrating a second straight NCAA championship.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Tim Walton’s needs a traveling secretary to manage his calendar these days.
“Just been running around, man,” Walton said. “On the move.”
Since leading the Florida softball team to a second straight Women’s College World Series title five weeks ago, Walton has taken a couple recruiting spins (with more to come this month), worked as an assistant coach with the Team USA’s U19 team, returned to campus for some Gators camps and next week is off to California for a speaking engagement and then a little side trip Wednesday to the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles.
ESPYS, here he comes.
“That should be pretty cool,” he said.
Walton and wife Samantha will accompany Lauren Haeger to the glitzy, star-studded event. Haeger, whose pitching/hitting exploits were at the forefront of UF’s run to the NCAA championship, is nominated for a pair of ESPYs: Best Female College Athlete and Best Championship Performance.
Haeger, who was in Los Angeles last week as a finalist for the Honda Award (given to the nation’s best all-around athlete), has a reasonable chance to win the former (her chief competition being California swimmer Missy Franklin and Connecticut basketball player Breanna Stewart).
She has zero chance to win the latter; not against LeBron James, Madison Bumgarner and American Pharoah.
“She’s up against one of the greatest basketball players of all time and one of the greatest race horses of all time,” Walton said. “I think there’s something comparable with Madison Bumgarner and how they both put their teams on their shoulders, but obviously that’s a different level. But still.”
Bumgarner, the San Francisco Giants ace and reigning World Series MVP, is one of the better hitting pitchers in the major leagues, but he’s yet to be talked about in the same sentence as Babe Ruth.
Haeger has that going for her.
Screen shots of Haeger and Ruth -- the only bat-and-ball players ever to hit at least 70 home runs and win at least 70 games as a pitcher -- were prominent during the WCWS and huge in Haeger earning her national acclaim. That notoriety, though, came long after she was a first-round pick of the pro softball Dallas Charge (for whom she’s been playing the last month), and after she began taking the Gators on their eventual ride to Oklahoma City with a masterful run through the NCAA regional and Super Regional in both the circle and batter's box.
For Walton, seeing Haeger rack up the headlines has been a blast and somewhat parallels what pitcher Hannah Rogers enjoyed after a similar rampage (minus the bat) in the postseason a year ago. Rogers (right) got the ESPY invite also, but Walton didn’t make that trip.
He’s not missing this one.
“I don’t want to just coach this team anymore. I want to be more involved with things they’re doing and accomplishing. I want to show my support for them,” Walton said. “”Lauren, the last few weeks, she’s been living a fast life -- with pro ball, the Honda, now the ESPYs -- and she’s probably just trying to keep up with a lot stuff ... but it’s a lot of fun stuff. And for a woman, playing sports at the level’s she’s played, this could possibly be the highlights of her athlete career, right here, right now, and I think it’s fantastic. I want to be there to enjoy it too.”
The Florida program has been spoiled the last two years with the individual achievements of Rogers and Haeger. As good as, say, first-team All-American and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Kelsey Stewart might be, there are no guarantees she’ll be on the red-carpet circuit this time next year.
"You just never know," he said.
So Walton, between recruiting visits and Team USA and camps, is going to soak it all in. All of it.
>>> UPDATED <<<
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When little-known forward Justin Leon signed with Florida last month, the Kansas junior college prospect was hailed as the first Gators recruit of the Michael White era. Technically, that was accurate.
But when White replaced Billy Donovan two months ago, one of his first orders of business was re-recruiting Donovan’s incoming recruits; the four incoming freshmen who actually inked to play for Florida thinking were coming to play for the future Hall-of-Famer.
White went 3-for-4 on that endeavor, landing the three players that best fit how the new Gators coach want\s to play. That trio -- guard KeVaughn Allen (right), center Kevarrius Hayes and forward Keith Stone -- reported for the Summer B session last week, began classes this week and tipped off the start of preseason workouts with White and his staff Monday.
All three will have a chance to contribute in some capacity this season, with Leon, the 6-foot-8, 200-pounder from Shawnee Community College where he averaged 21.5 points and 10 rebounds per game, due to arrive for the start of fall semester classes in August.
One of these guys looks like an instant-impact type.
“I think I’m a good player,” said Allen, a soft-spoken kid with a very loud game that twice earned him Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Arkansas. “I play fast, I play hard on offense and defense, and I like to get my teammates involved.”
The 6-foot-3, 175-pound Allen averaged 25.2 points, 6.2 rebounds 4.7 assists in leading North Little Rock to three consecutive Class 7A state titles. He has long arms, a 38 1/2-inch vertical jump, good range from distance and the ability to get his own shot. Candidly, he looks like the Gators’ best all-around guard prospect since Bradley Beal arrived in 2011, but this is only individual instruction season (and, no, no one is comparing him to Beal).
Allen, though, is armed with the “quick twitch” athleticism White looks for. His being here, trusting in the new coach and the vision put forth, is a big plus.
"I'm excited," Allen said. "I just want to come to the gym, work as hard as I can and prove to them that I'm here to work and help the team anyway possible."
When Donovan bolted for the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder in April, there were plenty of media outlets reporting Allen would ask out of his national letter-of-intent and throw his name back in the recruiting pool. That’s when White went to work.
Like he did with his other incomings, White paid all of them in-person visits, showed them tape of the way his up-tempo, pressing teams played the last four seasons at Louisiana Tech, and went for the hard sell.
“The things he was telling me about the program he runs, the way he would do things, I believed in him. I believed in the system and I thought I would do well,” Allen said. “He talked about how he allows his players to play, get up and down the court, have some freedom. I just felt it would fit me.”
That pitch worked for Hayes and Stone, also.
“I was a little hesitant at first, but once I got to meet Coach White I saw he was a good guy who had some really good intentions for Florida basketball,” said Hayes (left), the 6-9, 190-pounder who averaged nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds per game at nearby Live Oak (Fla.) Suwannee High. “His plans for me pretty much matched up with Billy D’s plans, as far as me being a front-court runner who could pressure the ball. And he said he liked my motor and knew I could run and keep up with his fast-paced offense. Those were things I wanted to hear.”
The 6-8, 240-pound Stone was something of a late-bloomer on the recruiting circuit. He did not sign early, but committed to UF last fall anticipaing scholarship would be there for him in April. It was, but ultimately the coach he committed to was not.
“Coach White said he would use me similarly to how Coach Donovan was going to use me,” said Stone (right), out of Deerfield Beach, Fla. “I can play inside-out, I can handle the ball and I’ve got a nice shooting touch. Now, I’m just excited to be here and to finally take the next step.”
That means on-court drills, but also indoctrination into strength and conditioning coordinator Preston Greene’s program.
Allen already has a college body (heck, he may even have a defensive back’s body) and it will only become more impressive. Hayes needs upper body strength, while Stone has some toning up to do. Their bodies will look much different come October.
Their overall games, too.
“I’m just excited to watch them,” White said. “The first week or so will be more of sitting back and obviously pushing them to work very, very hard, but more than anything else evaluating exactly who they are as players.”
FREE THROWS: The Gators, of course, went 16-17 last season, marking the program's first losing record since 1998. In 2015-16, in addition to a new coaching staff, Florida will roll out seven players who are either new or did not play a minute on last year’s team. Clearly, the new look Gators will extend well beyond White. ... Guard Brandone Francis is one of those new guys. He sat out last fall due to academic reasons and when he was cleared to join the team (for practice only) in December he was around 223 pounds. He’s 203 now. He’s also 6-5 (with some moxie) and figures to bring a physical presence at the position that’s not been seen here in some time. He can also play point guard at that size and last year during practices flashed some spectacular no-look dishes. ... The big men’s workout session is a 3-man class of all new guys: Sophomore John Egbunu, the transfer from South Florida who sat out last season, sophomore Schuyler Rimmer, who transferred from Stanford in midseason who turns eligible after the first semester, and Hayes. Egbunu, at 6-11, 250 pounds, is a toy the likes of which White never got to play with at LA Tech. White is intrigued at the prospect of having a big-time post presence in his system. Egbunu averaged 7.4 and 6.5 rebounds as a freshman at USF in ’13-14. ... Fourth-year junior swingman DeVon Walker tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last July, so the one-year anniversary of that injury is approaching. Walker, who averaged 2.4 points and 1.2 rebounds off the bench for UF’s Final Four team two seasons ago, got a medical redshirt last season. Trainer David “Duke” Werner is pleased with Walker’s progress, but is being cautious as far as full-go clearance over the summer. No rush. The focus is full-go come fall. said Wednesday that Walker has been cleared for full-contact activities, including pick-up basketball with teammates. Note: Those who recall the skinny sophomore Walker will be surprised when the new, more filled-out version unveils himself. ... The basketball facility’s $1.2 million weight room renovation that began in April is on schedule for completion (above). The area will nearly double its lifting space (with room for additional equipment), plus add a nutrition bar and expanded office space for the strength staff.
Lauren Haeger and Kytra Hunter mug for the camera after Monday night's Honda Award presentation in Los Angeles, honoring the NCAA's top female athletes in their respective sports. [Photos by Robert Beck]
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- First, some perspective.
In the history of University of Florida women’s athletics, no Gator had ever been named a Honda Award finalist until softball superstar Lauren Haeger heard her name called Monday night.
“I mean, what do you say to that?” Haeger asked.
And in the decorated history of UF women’s athletics, only two Gators -- a pair of orange and blue icons in swimmer Tracy Caulkens (in 1982, ’83 and ’84, who twice won the Cup before it went to a semifinals format) and tennis assassin Lisa Raymond -- had been named Honda nominee in their respective sport twice until gymnast Kytra Hunter joined that elite group earlier this month. In 2012, Hunter became just the second UF freshman so honored.
“Honestly, when I look back on my collegiate career, I don’t think there’s any more I could have gotten out of it,” Hunter said. “It makes me so proud.”
Haeger and Hunter, who together gathered a wall of hardware for themselves and their teams the last four years, spoke late Monday night from Los Angeles after the Collegiate Women Sports Award show on CBS Sports honoring the 12 best athletes in their respective NCAA-sanction sports (those in attendance pictured below).
Missy Franklin, who claimed five titles while leading the University of California to the 2015 NCAA championship, was awarded the Honda Cup as 2015 Woman Athlete of the Year. Franklin, a 14-time All-American and Olympic gold-medalist, was chosen over a semifinal trio that also included Connecticut basketball superstar Breanna Stewart and Haeger, both of whom led their teams to national titles and edged a paddle wheel of superstars to reach the final three.
For Haeger, the night was the latest stop in whirlwind few weeks ignited earlier this month when she both pitched and hit the Gators to a second straight Women’s College World Series crown. Haeger, the senior from Peoria, Ariz., became the first player in NCAA history to reach at least 70 wins as a pitcher for a career and match that number with 70 homers.
Oh, and since we started this post with perspective, we might as well remind anyone who wasn’t watching the WCWS that the only other person ever to play a bat-and-ball sport and go 70-and-70 was named Babe Ruth.
Maybe for that very reason (not to mention she went 32-2 and led her team in homers and RBI for the season, plus posted a 4-1 mark and ERA of 1.18 while hitting .571 at the WCWS) Haeger’s next stop will be another trip to California for the ESPY Awards in July. She is nominated in two categories: Best Female College Athlete and Best Championship Performance. In the latter category, her competition includes -- get this -- LeBron James in the NBA Finals, Madison Bumgarner in the World Series and Triple Crown-winning thoroughbred American Pharoah.
“When I heard that, I was like, ‘What? Tell me again, who am I? I’m Lauren, right?’ ” she said. “I don’t know. It’s just something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”
The same can be said for her most recent excursion to L.A.
Haeger, who earlier this month started a stint as a rookie with the Dallas Charge of National Pro Fastpitch, joined Hunter for the trip west and spent a couple days with the absolute best college female athletes in their respective sports.
“It’s been a lot of fun just to connect with all the women here and to listen to some of their inspirational stories and the adversity they had to overcome,” Hunter said. “Just having the insight from their different points of view, being able to share their stories, will be something I can take away. I really do feel like I made some close friends here.”
Hunter and Haeger were already friends, having arrived at UF together as freshmen in 2011. Though they didn’t have much time to hang out during their spring seasons, both watched each other dominant their craft.
Haeger went to many a gymnastic meet. Hunter watched Haeger set down batters and collect extra base hits on television. Combined, they won five national champions with their teams, with gymnastics claiming the last three and softball the last two.
Both will return to UF this fall and are on schedule to graduate in the coming academic year; Hunter in December with a degree in Food and Resource Economics; Haeger next spring in Family Youth and Community Science.
Their images and/or achievements will be emblazoned throughout their athletic facilities. Forever.
“I know how hard I had to work, so I have such respect for Lauren because I know what it took for her to be the best,” Hunter said.
In Haeger’s case, as Florida’s only Honda Award finalist in its 39-year history, a case can be made she is THE BEST Gators athlete, well, maybe ever. That’s a debate left for others.
Without question, though, both Haeger and Hunter belong in it.
“That’s just crazy,” Haeger said. “For me, it’s about the work. I just go out there and do what I love to do, work hard, and the rest just sort of falls into place. But to leave a mark on a such a great university like Florida, that’s just really cool. I don’t have the words yet.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Florida basketball folks will be locked into Thursday night’s NBA Draft, which may or may not yield a player with ties to the Gators or new coach Michael White.
So put on a pot of coffee and throw back a Red Bull.
If Michael Frazier II is going to hear his named called, it figures to be deep into the proceedings.
Frazier (right), a deadly 3-point shooter in his three seasons spotting up for the Gators, raised many an eyebrow when he opted to forgo his senior season and declare for the draft as an underclassman in April. His decision, on the heels of a junior year that marked his worst shooting performance of his career (38 percent vs his 43.5 career figures), went against the advice of then-Coach Billy Donovan, but Frazier was undeterred. He was convinced he could make a mark in pre-draft workouts or, at worst, get a nice overseas contract.
"I knew what people were saying, but it didn't really matter to me," Frazier told The Tampa Bay Times recently. "I knew that if I could get the opportunity to show what I could do, I would make the most of it. … My concern was just getting into the combine, just getting an opportunity to get into the combine. I knew that if I could just get into that, everything else would take care of itself."
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Frazier had some nice combine performances and team workouts; good enough that he shows up in a few (not all) mock drafts in the mid- to late-second round range. And when it comes to that late in the draft, it’s all about fit and need.
If a team like, say, the Denver Nuggets or Charlotte Hornets is looking to fill a void for a role-playing outside shooter off the bench, there were few better in the college game at knocking down the long ball in transition than Frazier the last few years. He has a defined skill that, frankly, a lot of NBA teams lack.
Chris Walker is a different story.
Walker (right) is a 6-11, 210-pound power forward enigma. He possesses enough athleticism to entice the scouts, but it was the application of those gifts -- specifically, the lack thereof -- that concern folks at the next level. They were only applied enough at UF to average 4.8 points, 3.7 rebounds in less than 15 minutes per game as a sophomore last season, so how are they going to transfer against the best players in the world?
If they are, here's how: At the next level, they all think they’re better. And there may be one team (which is all it takes) that looks at Walker and says, “Well, it’ll be different when we coach him.”
For what it’s worth, one CBS Sports analyst projects Walker to the Philadelphia 76ers with the 60th (and last) selection in the draft. The Sixers have five second-round draft picks, so spending one on Walker and stashing him in the D-League to see how motivated he is may not be that farfetched a scenario.
Another name to keep an eye on is that of Kenneth “Speedy” Smith, a point guard who went virtually unrecruited out of Boca Ciega, Fla., and went on to become 2015 Conference USA Player of the Year at Louisiana Tech under the tutelage of White in his final year with the Bulldogs.
Smith’s 267 assists (7.4 per game) led the nation last season and his 858 over the last four seasons were the most by any player in the country during that span. His 258 steals were the fourth most.
Though he started the offseason rated as a solid second-round pick, Smith did not perform particularly well in combine workouts -- ESPN rates him the No. 10 point guard prospect -- so he'll turn on the television and hope someone calls his name late Thursday night (or early Friday morning).
Put the Red Bull on ice.
Updated: 12:09pm, June 23
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For Gators in South Florida, the basketball team’s trip to the Metro PCS Orange Bowl Classic each Christmas season usually marks the best chance for the fans in the Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach areas to see the team. UF's foes have always been in the sexy so-called “name opponent” category, but visits down there are rare.
But the announcement Tuesday morning that Florida will face Oklahoma State in the 2015 OBC event at BB&T Center on Dec. 19 represents one of the most attractive match-ups in UF’s 17 visits to Sunrise. The Cowboys are coming off an 18-14 season that ended with a first-round loss to Oregon in the NCAA Tournament.
OSU, coached by Travis Ford, beat five ranked opponents last season before going into a late funk -- seven losses in its last eight games -- but still managed to receive an at-large bid from the NCAA selection committee.
Interestingly enough, the game will mark one of two December trips to South Florida for the Gators, who will also play a rare game against Miami at Coral Gables on Dec. 8.
Here’s a look back at the 16 previous Orange Bowl Classics. Florida is 14-2 all-time in the event.
Dec. 27, 1997: UAB 80, Florida 73
One of just two losses for the Gators in the OBC came in Coach Billy Donovan’s second season.
Dec. 27, 1998: Florida 79, Michigan 63
This was the four-freshmen class, led by Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem, which rolled through the Wolverines, who were armed with Louis Bullock. That UM team went just 12-19 then had to forfeit all their wins due to NCAA violations. Freshman guard Teddy Dupay went 4-for-6 from 3-point range.
Dec. 16, 2000: Florida 85, Gonzaga 71
Would rather have had a win over the Bulldogs two seasons earlier in Phoenix, right?
Dec. 15, 2001: Florida 73, UNC-Charlotte 52
Haslem, who starred at Miami Senior High, had 22 points and 13 rebounds in homecoming here.
Dec. 21, 2002: Florida 94, Miami 93 (2OT)
Matt Walsh poured in a career-high 33 points, but it took a free throw from Justin Hamilton with six seconds left in the second overtime to push the Gators past the Hurricanes. Walsh’s points were the most by a UF freshman since Vernon Delancey went for 38 against Alabama in 1981. The game was the first in 12 years against the two in-state programs. UM got 32 points from Darius Rice and 26 from James Jones (the one who just for Cleveland in the 2015 NBA Finals).
Dec. 20, 2003: Florida 70, West Virginia 57
This was Coach John Beilein’s second season at WVU. The game was a fraction of forward Christian Drejer’s career at Florida. He had 15 points and eight rebounds in 34 minutes. Center David Lee was good for 15 and five.
Nov. 27, 2004: Florida 84, Providence 66
Donovan went 3-0 against his alma mater during his time with the Gators, also sweeping the Friars in a home-and-home series in ’05 and ’06. This neutral site meeting also was a rare Thanksgiving version of the event.
Dec. 30, 2006: Florida 75, UAB 70
After skipping ’05, the Gators were back at Sunrise as defending national champions. They didn’t necessarily look the part in this game, but 19 points and five rebounds from Corey Brewer, plus 13 and 13 from Joakim Noah were enough to erase a first-half deficit and beat the Blazers.
Dec. 29, 2007: Florida 86, Temple 69
Marreese Speights scored 20 points and Nick Calathes went for 14 points, seven rebounds and eight assists.
Dec. 28, 2008: Florida 74, Winthrop 45
Gators led 53-11 at halftime.
Dec. 19, 2009: Richmond 56, Florida 53
The core of this Spiders team reached the Sweet 16 a season later, but it was David Gonzalvez (16 points, 4-for-10 from 3) and horrendous offense that did in the Gators, who scored just 21 points on 7-for-27 shooting in the second half.
Dec. 18, 2010: Florida 57, Kansas State 54
UF smothered a Wildcats backcourt, led by All-Big 12er Jacob Pullen and Rodney McGruder, into just 8-for-28 from the floor and 2-for-13 from the arc. Florida sophomore Kenny Boynton had 15 points up the road from his hometown of Pompano Beach. Note: Two days later, the Gators lost at home to Jacksonville; two months later, they won the SEC. Go figure.
Dec. 17, 2011: Florida 84, Texas A&M 64
The Aggies had Elston Turner, who a year later went to Kentucky and scored 40, and Khris Middleton, now a 12-per-game scorer in the NBA, but UF put four guys in double-figures (including Boyton with 22 and freshman Bradley Beal with 16) and led by 25 at halftime.
Dec. 29, 2012: Florida 78, Air Force 61
UF was up by just two at the break, but shot nearly 70 percent in the second half.
Dec. 21, 2013: Florida 66, Fresno State 69
Win No. 3 of a 30-game winning streak. Patric Young had 15 points, 6 rebounds.
Dec. 20, 2014: Florida 63, Wake Forest 50
Dorian Finney-Smith had 16 points and six rebounds, while Michael Frazier II took a nasty (and bloody) blow to the head, but returned to score 12 points. Duke transfer Alex Murphy, in his first game since becoming eligible, went for nine points and four rebounds against Coach Danny Manning’s Demon Deacons.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Jim McElwain may be coaching the Florida Gators now, but relationships he forged in three seasons at Colorado State remain strong.
His loyalty to them, also.
Former CSU defensive lineman Eli Edwards lost his wife two weekends ago. Isa Edwards was in Australia receiving treatment for lupus when she died June 8. She left behind her husband and young daughter Ellyse. In the nearly two weeks since, the two have remained in New Zealand because they don’t have the money to get back to the United States.
That’s why Edwards set up a GoFundMe account seeking donations from family and friends in hopes of scraping together enough money to bring himself and Ellyse back home and hold a memorial service for Isa.
As of Wednesday, the account had brought in more than $20,000, with a big chunk coming from McElwain, who recruited Edwards to Colorado State five years ago.
A donation of $5,000 was made in the name of MacFam LLC, a private company owned by McElwain, who left CSU in December to take the Gators post, and his wife Karen, according to the GoFundMe site titled "Bring Isa Home."
Columnist Matt L. Stephens wrote about the Edwards plight in Tuesday’s editions of The Coloradoan.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A day after Florida softball fans celebrated the program’s historic second straight national championship, the University Athletic Association held its latest in a series of meetings to address the conception phase for major renovations to Pressly Stadium.
Led by Chip Howard, UF’s executive association athletic director for internal affairs, the meeting focused on potential amenities that would be folded into the project to accommodate the growth of the team’s fan base due to its phenomenal success under Coach Tim Walton. The committee first began its stadium renovation study four months ago.
Budget for the project is expected to be in excess of $2 million. With plans only in the conception phase, no timetable has been set to begin construction.
Among the areas expected to be addressed:
* Nearly doubling the current capacity of 1,200 by extending the bleachers into the current berm areas, plus the addition of more ADA seating.
* Shade structure for the stands.
* More concessions and larger restrooms.
* Larger dugouts.
* Expanded press box
* Team video area in clubhouse
* Renovated bullpen areas.
Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium opened in UF’s inaugural 1997 season, but in nearly two decades has outgrown the popularity of a program that has been to the Women’s College World Series seven of the last eight seasons.
The Gators defeated Michigan 4-1 in Wednesday night’s decisive Game 3 of the WCWS national title series to become just the third program in college softball history (joining UCLA and Arizona) to win consecutive NCAA crowns.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- When Lauren Haeger went to the ballpark Tuesday night she did so knowing she had a chance to win a second straight national championship. Her Florida Gators took Game 1 of the best-of-three series Monday and were in the drivers seat heading into Game 2.
When she enters Hall of Fame Stadium Wednesday night, the senior superstar figures to have an altogether different outlook the likes of which she’s never had before.
For good reason.
“I obviously want to win my last game in a Gator uniform. That means a lot to me,” Haeger (above) said with a steely look of determination. “I just want to leave it all out there on the field and not play scared.”
She pretty much left it out there Tuesday, yielding just one run and four hits in a complete game against high-powered Michigan, only to fall 1-0. Haeger had two of the Gators’ six hits (all singles) against Wolverines ace Haylie Wagner, as the team was shut out for the first time in 66 games this season.
So it’ll come down to top-seeded Florida (59-7) and third-seeded Michigan (60-7) in a winner-take-all Game 3 on ESPN at 8 p.m.
It’ll mark just the third WCWS Game 3 since the tournament went to the best-of-three format. In each of the previous times, the Game 2 winner has rode the momentum and won the rubber game.
Yes, the Gators are aware.
“You’ll definitely see different energy,” junior third baseman Taylore Fuller said. “It’s more than just the last softball game for us. It’s putting the seniors out the right way. We want to get that win for them.”
Neither UF coach Tim Walton or UM coach Carol Hutchins tipped their hand as to who would be the circle, but go ahead and book a rematch of last night. It’ll be Haeger (31-2, 1.29 ERA) against Wagner (25-2, 1.54 ERA), who has held the Gators scoreless in 10 1/3 innings of WCWS work.
It'll be Wagner's college swan song. She'll have that senior sense of urgency, also.
“We’ll do everything we can to win,” Hutchins said.
Both teams will.
Senior Lauren Haeger rested her 31-1 record and her 1.25 ERA as her teammates pitched the Florida past Michigan in Game 1 of the Women's College World Series. She figures to back in the circle for Tuesday night's second game, with a chance to wrap up a second straight national title.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- There may have been some perceived intrigue as to which pitcher Florida coach Tim Walton was going to put in the circle Monday night for Game 1 of the Women’s College World Series against Michigan.
In this case, perception was far from reality.
“Lauren could have pitched tonight, but we thought to ourselves, if she doesn’t pitch well, then what?” Walton said after the Gators defeated the Wolverines 3-2 Monday behind a pair of pitchers who hadn’t seen the circle in weeks. “At least, win or lose, we still have Lauren Haeger to go to over the next couple of games, if we need to.”
And here we are.
After a victory, no less.
Behind six solid innings from freshman Aleshia Ocasio (2 runs, 5 hits, 3 strikeouts, 4 walks) and a ridiculously hard-nosed closing job from sophomore Delanie Gourley, who got out of a first-and-third, no-out jam to record a save, the Gators (59-6) will have two chances to beat the Wolverines (59-7) once and claim a second straight NCAA title.
Haeger, armed with that 31-1 record and 1.29 ERA, is rested and presumably ready.
Whether the 2015 National Player of the Year does, indeed, get the call won’t be official until Walton turns in his lineup card about 30 minutes before Tuesday night’s first pitch -- 8 p.m. on ESPN -- but the coach basically announced as much with the back end of his above quote.
Tuesday would be the first of those “next couple of games.” The biggest, also. Unless, there’s a Wednesday night game, of course.
While she didn't pitch, Haeger (aka "Babe Ruth") more than made her presence felt in the opener, accounting for all three of UF’s runs. "The Bambina," if you will, blasted a towering 2-run home run in the first inning, then lashed an RBI-double in the third.
Her home run came on an 12-pitch at-bat, as she fouled off seven straight pitches then golfed Megan Betsa's low ball about 10 rows into the left-field bleachers for her 19th homer of the season and 71st of her career.
Haeger was asked if such a grinding at-bat was frustrating.
“As a batter, no,” she said. “As a pitcher, yes.”
Of course, she would know. She’s as good as any player in the country, basically, at both.
Haeger gushed about how Ocasio and Gourley responded to their difficult challenges. Ocasio had not pitched since the NCAA Tournament regional opener May 15 against Florida A&M (17 days), while Gourley had not pitched since May 8 in a loss to Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference (24 days). They weren't needed.
That's Haeger had thrown 52 consecutive games, won seven straight and allowed just four runs along the way.
On Sunday, though, Haeger worked all nine innings in a 3-2 thriller over Auburn, throwing 160 pitches. In her two previous games at the WCWS (wins over Tennessee Thursday and LSU Friday), she combined for 160 pitches.
She needed a day off.
“I’m so proud of them,” Haeger said. “They worked so hard, like I do, and they deserve what they did tonight. Aleshia is amazing. Delanie is amazing. I’ve said the whole time that I am going to need them to have my back throughout this whole entire tournament.”
They’ll have it again Tuesday night -- if the last few weeks are any indication -- from the dugout.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Last year, after the Florida Gators captured their first softball national championship in program history, I wrote this blog about the remarkable young lady, Heather Braswell, who inspired the team during a fight with cancer she ultimately lost.
Heather, a fixture in the UF clubhouse and dugout for five years, died 10 weeks shy of Hannah Rogers’ leading the Gators to the 2014 NCAA crown.
Today’s editions of The Daily Oklahoman updated the story one year later. Columnist Jenni Carlson caught up Monday night with Heather’s mother, Terri Braswell, who was in Hall of Fame Stadium to see the Gators defeat Michigan 3-2 in Game 1 of the best-of-three championship series. Read her story here.
Those yellow sunflowers in the UF players’ hair are worn in Heather’s memory.
“Sometimes, it makes me cry,” Terri told the paper on a day where hundreds of fans among the crowd of 8,000-plus wore pink as part of Strikeout Cancer Night. “But it warms my heart that she touched so many. She would just be ecstatic. She would be thrilled with what they’re doing. It’s making people ask questions, which will hopefully in turn bring awareness.”
In February, Coach Tim Walton (pictured above right with Heather) invited Terri, who lives in Apopka, Fla., to throw out the first pitch of a game. That night, she was presented with a championship pendant engraved with the words “Team Heather.”
There’s still a locker in the UF team’s dressing room with Heather’s name on it.
“And we’re never taking it down,” sophomore pitcher Delanie Gourley said after closing out the win over the Wolverines with a stunning display of toughness in her first appearance in the circle in 24 days. “She’s always going to be a part of our team."
Junior All-American Kelsey Stewart bats in Sunday's Women's College World Series semifinals, a 3-2 win over Auburn.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Florida Gators are in the Women’s College World Series national championship series without a lot of noise from Kelsey Stewart.
On-the-field noise, that is.
“Sometimes, I’ll just go in the back and scream a little bit,” Stewart said Monday morning. “That’s how I get it out of my system.”
Stewart, the All-America second baseman and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, has gone 4-for-12 at the WCWS, with a double and triple, plus one run scored. Her average here is .333 -- hardly shabby -- but Stewart leads the Gators with a .442 average and 31 extra-base hits during the 2015 season.
You can imagine how the junior, one of the fiercest competitors on the squad, felt after leading off the last two games with big hits (a triple Friday against LSU, then a double Sunday against Auburn) and failing to score. Or against Auburn on Sunday when she popped out with runners at first and second in the fourth, popped out again with the winning run at second in the seventh, then struck out with the winning run on second in the ninth.
The good news for Stewart, of course, was that her teammates were there to pick her up. In this case, it was freshman Nicole DeWitt, who followed Stewart's strikeout with a single that scored Justine McLean with the game-winner and put reigning champion UF in the WCWS title series for the second straight year.
For that, Stewart was thankful, but the missed opportunities definitely gnawed at her.
“I was extremely frustrated,” Stewart said. “I think I was trying too hard and my frustration got the best of me. Now, it’s about bouncing back.”
Coach Tim Walton had a settling conversation with his star after the big 3-2 extra-inning win over the Tigers. He told her to think of the postseason in four phases, each its own separate entity: regional play, Super Regional play, College World Series play and national championship play.
The Gators (58-6) are in the best-of-three national championship series starting Monday night against Michigan (59-6). Game time is 8 p.m. The next, last and most pivotal phase.
“Fresh, clean slate,” Stewart said with a smile. “Whole new ballgame.”
Florida’s best hitter, no doubt, will have several more clutch opportunities to do what she does best.
Freshman Nicole DeWitt is all smiles after hitting her solo homer in Friday night's 4-0 defeat of LSU that helped keep the Gators unbeaten in the Women's College World Series.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- After top-seeded Florida had just shucked her hot-hitting LSU squad into the Women’s College World Series elimination bracket with a 4-0 defeat, Tigers coach Beth Torina was both gracious and complimentary of the Gators and their do-it-all senior star Lauren Haeger.
“It seems like Florida has a senior pitcher that steps up this time of year every year and really does a great job for them,” said Torina, no doubt harkening back to last year’s stunning postseason run to the program’s first NCAA title led by Hannah Rogers. “Florida understands how to win this time of year. We’re still young. We have a lot of young kids.”
That may be true of the Tigers, as well a handful of other teams at Hall of Fame Stadium this week that weren’t fortunate enough to return a national-championship roster that lost just two starters.
But the Gators aren’t 57-6 and one win shy of reaching the best-of-three WCWS title series just because of Haeger and her fellow veterans. Youth is being served for the Gators, no doubt, but it’s also providing a service.
UF won the regular-season Southeastern Conference title with a freshman, 17-game winner Aleshia Ocasio, as a regular in the circle. Nicole DeWitt, a freshman outfielder, started 49 games, hit .345 and was sixth on the team with 38 runs scored. Kayli Kvistad, another rookie, clubbed six homers, knocked in another 36 runs and, like DeWitt, has left her mark on Florida’s latest charge through the WCWS bracket.
Clearly, the stage is not too big for these WCWS first-timers, even though the experience is nothing like they’ve dealt with before. More fun is on the way Sunday when UF takes on either UCLA or Auburn with the winner moving into the finals.
“You have to soak it in,” DeWitt, the Californian, said of the carnival-like World Series environment. “There are people leaning over the fence giving you high-fives. I’ve never seen that before. All these people are here for you. It’s like, wow, amazing. Such a great feeling. ... I can’t say I’m used to it, but you have to do what you know how to do.”
“It’s just softball,” she said.
DeWitt makes a play in the outfield Thursday (above) against Tennessee and is all smiles (below) as she rounds third and fist-bumps Coach Tim Walton after smashing her home run vs LSU.
“You would love to have veterans who have been there and done that, but you need the youthful experience to keep things exciting and keep things moving,” Coach Tim Walton said Saturday, as UF reaped the benefits of a two wins to open the WCWS with the accompanying day off. “You just can’t have a bunch of veterans all the time. At some point, it gets stale. I think young players allow you to challenge the returning players to stay on top of their game. Plus, you have to learn from somebody.”
Haeger, Kelsey Stewart, Aubree Munro and company have done their part, but Florida’s freshman came ready for prime time. Because Haeger has been so dominant in the postseason (6-0, 0.33 ERA), Ocasio has not been needed since her 6-0 shutout win against Florida A&M that opened NCAA play.
Kvistad, from Lake City, Fla., broke out of a month-long hitting slump in the Super Regional against Kentucky with a bases-clearing double in the first inning of Game 1. She then came to OKC and in her big-stage debut smashed a towering home run (left) into the right field seats in her second World Series at-bat, to give UF a 3-0 lead against Tennessee.
“It was really exciting,” she said. “I was looking for a pitch to hit and working on being on time and to help my team out.”
And then there was DeWitt.
UF held that 3-0 lead against the Volunteers in the fourth inning Thursday. With a runner on first, Meghan Gregg crushed a ball to deep left field that DeWitt retreated on and gloved inches before the wall to rob Gregg of extra bases. The next batter, Megan Geer, homered to make the score 3-2, but DeWitt’s defense minimized the damage and the Gators went on to win 7-2.
Then came Saturday night against LSU. With no score, DeWitt led off the top of the fifth with a slap single just out of the infield and into center. That set the table for Haeger to launch her second homer in as many nights to give the Gators a 2-0 lead.
The next inning, Munro led off with a double, but the Gators ran themselves out of a potential threat when Stewart hit into a third-to-first-to-third double play. That cleared the bases. LSU’s fans cheered the rally kill.
Then DeWitt homered to right. Just her second of the year. As she rounded first, DeWitt emphatically pumped her first.
This time, the Gators' fans cheered.
“It was just the greatest feeling I’ve ever had,” she said.
Chances are, she has more to come. Kvistad and Osasio, too. The youngsters have plenty of playing left to do. The next few days and beyond.
Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan poses with the UF softball team after an improtu visit from the former Gators basketball coach Wednesday on the eve of the team's opener in Women's College World Series.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Just before 7 o’clock Wednesday night, Tim Walton ducked out of a post-dinner meeting with his Florida softball team for a few minutes.
When he came back, Walton announced to his players that someone was there to speak with them.
In walked Billy Donovan.
"I have always had so much respect with the way Billy runs his program and his teams, and the message he’s always relayed to his fellow coaches and players," Walton said later. "He's someone I have always leaned on, whether talking about my team or talking about me personally. That’s why I reached out to him."
To these Gator girls, Donovan is still their coach, though he didn’t have to come very far to get to their headquarters for 2015 Women’s College World Series; just a few blocks from the hotel where he’s been holed up the last three weeks since being named head coach of the NBA Oklahoma City Thunder.
Donovan, of course, knows a little something about chasing a second straight national championship, which the UF women are doing. He won two in a row in 2006 and '07. So on the eve of the softball Gators' opening WCWS game -- top-seeded Florida (55-6) faces Tennessee (47-15) Thursday at noon -- Donovan had some words of advice as they sat mesmerized before the future Hall-of-Famer.
He told them how he watched last year’s run to the program’s first NCAA title and was floored by what he called “one of the most unbelievable examples of teamwork and unselfishness” he’d ever seen.
“Where is my girl Lauren?” Donovan asked.
That, of course, would be senior Lauren Haeger, the recently crowned NCAA Player of the Year. She was in the back of the room and raised her hand.
In Game 2 of UF’s championship series against Alabama last year, Walton made the risky decision not to start ace Hannah Rogers, who had stormed to seven postseason wins, including four in the WCWS. Instead, Walton looked to Haeger. He wanted to throw the Crimson Tide a curve, in addition to giving Rogers some rest.
Walton, in fact, actually consulted Donovan on his decision at the time. Donovan's wisdom: As long as your team believes in you, they'll be fine.
But the analysts on ESPN commenced their second-guessing. So did the dime-store experts on Twitter as the game played out and the Gators fell behind early.
Rogers, though, screamed and cheered for Haeger from the dugout; and screamed and cheered for freshman Delanie Gourley, who Walton summoned first for relief.
It was a scene Donovan recalled watching last year, alongside his wife, marveling at how Rogers handled the decision -- and also how Rogers eventually entered the game in the sixth inning and closed out the night with a save.
And a championship.
“It was special. Someone actually gave themselves up for the best of the team,” Donovan told the players. “It’s very easy to let ego get involved when you’re in those situations. I thought it was really, really special. I was so proud how Hannah handled herself on TV and how much confidence she had in you, Lauren, and how much confidence she had in her coach.”
Then he turned to this current chase for a championship and told the Gators to understand some things going in:
* You're not defending anything. “Last year’s national championship is over and done with. It’s been accomplished, it’s in the record books and nobody is taking that away from you. You’re going to hear those words, but there is no defending. This is a new year, with a new challenge, new opponent.
* Everyone be ready. “You have to understand that through scouting and preparation, some of the people on this team that have been an integral part of this team may get taken out of games through coaching and through scouting. Somebody is going to have to step up. I would just tell you and warn you that regardless of what your role is it is incredibly vital that you stay ready. There is going to be an opportunity -- for somebody -- that is going to knock. When it’s not the ‘stars,’ it’s going to be someone else." A cited an example: the New England Patriots. "Whoever thought a sixth-round draft pick whose name no one even knew would make an interception to seal the Super Bowl?”
* Don’t believe that the path to last year’s title is the same as this one; expect the unexpected. “You guys are climbing a mountain and you have to understand that things are going to happen and you’re going to say, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect this.’ ... I would say you have a perfect example of expecting the unexpected right here in this room. When Coach decided last year to start Lauren, [Alabama wasn’t] ready for it. Don’t get caught like that. Whatever is thrown at you, handle it as a group. It’s not a surprise.”
He thanked them and left them with this.
“I’ll be watching.”
The talk lasted maybe seven minutes, but Walton could not have been more thrilled with the message. Several of his players were ready to take the field then and there.
"If anybody wasn't prepared, they went back to their rooms to get prepared," Walton said. "If anyone didn't think they had a huge role in winning our next game, they do now. That’s the secret to coaching; to get everyone to buy into their role and everyone to overachieve. That was his message. Everyone needs to do their part."
Donovan stayed for a nice team picture and left with some well-wishers for his new challenge. A few players chased him into the lobby for a couple more photos.
“I love him so much,” All-America second baseman Kelsey Stewart said. “That was the biggest and best surprise.”
One of the greatest inspirations I have ever been around. Thanks Coach for always sharing your time. Go Gators! pic.twitter.com/wRq4u2MddJ— Tim Walton (@_TimWalton) May 28, 2015
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In the wake of his program’s latest Super Regional clincher Sunday, Florida coach Tim Walton made a mental note during his post-game press conference to speak with freshman pitcher Alesha Ocasio in the locker room.
Walton, it seemed, did not expect to use just one pitcher in the Super. Not that he was complaining, mind you. Not with the way senior Lauren Haeger was spinning it from the circle.
His message to Ocasio, as well as sophomore Delanie Gourley, was simple.
“We’re going to need you,” Walton send.
In Oklahoma City, that is.
Five NCAA Tournament games so far, five shutouts. Four of those came from Haeger, who lowered her season ERA to 1.24 while improving to 28-1 on the season. The other came courtesy of Ocasio. Gourley didn’t take the mound in the regional or Super Regional.
Hard to second guess 34 innings pitched and a collective 0.00 ERA between those two, but Walton’s point is well taken. The Gators may be the top seed in the Women’s College World Series -- which opens Thursday when UF (55-6) takes on Tennessee (47-15) at noon from Hall of Fame Stadium -- but at some point (or points) they’re going to need all three of their pitchers.
“We’re a staff,” Haeger said of Ocasio and Gourley. “They’re ready to go and I’m excited to see them do their thing out there too.”
Don’t expect Walton to tip his hand regarding his WCWS Game 1 starter the next couple days, but he’ll be hard-pressed to bypass Haeger, his superstar and one of three candidates for NCAA Player of the Year, especially after three days of rest and the importance that comes with winning that first game (and avoiding the elimination bracket).
So Walton will talk among his coaching staff (in particular, pitching coach Jennifer Rocha) and come up with a plan. And then he’ll have a chat with his pitchers.
A candid one.
One of the things Walton has come to appreciate about this team over the season’s long haul is the trust that’s been built. He’s had to make some tough decisions along the way. Whether platooning three players at first base, a couple more at catcher, maneuvering a handful of players in the outfield or going with freshmen over veteran upperclassmen, Walton has been able to manage this group directly and honestly.
Collectively, the Gators have responded.
Case in point: Late in Sunday’s game against Kentucky, Walton paid Haeger a visit to the circle. He wondered if a second straight day in the brutal mid-day Florida sun was taking its toll on his standout.
“I want you to finish the game, but how much more you got?” he asked.
Haeger: “I feel good.”
In past visits, she’d come clean if her pitches weren’t breaking and advised her coach to make a change. Walton told that story after Sunday's game.
“No egos involved,” Walton said. “Just a big, strong trust.”
The Gators will place their trust in him again this week. And why not? Walton’s only won 10 straight NCAA tournament games, dating back to last year’s sweep through the WCWS. The won the Southeastern Conference regular-season title in a league that has five of the eight spots in Oklahoma City.
Yeah. To reiterate, he’s going to need his pitchers.
Heck, even Hannah Rogers needed a break in her historic rampage to a national title last year.
“I can’t see Lauren being able to effectively pitch all the way through,” Walton said. “It’s definitely something in our mindset, how we keep this pitching staff involved. It’s like I told Delanie last year, ‘I plan to go back to the College World Series, so you need to go out there and toe that rubber.’ We’re going to need to Ocasio and Gourley, moving forward.”
Freshman Kayli Kvistad blasts a first-inning, three-run double Saturday that set the tone for a 7-0 win in Game 1 of UF's Super Regional series against Kentucky at Pressly Stadium.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Nearly 40 games into her collegiate career, Florida’s big-swinging freshman first baseman Kayli Kvistad was hitting .319 and already had six games with at least three RBI.
But then came the next 17 games, when Kvistad went into a 2-for-29 tailspin, with her average dipping to .242.
So into the cages she went with her coaches, who happened to be armed a few gadgets. Coach Tim Walton could sense Kvistad was stepping to the plate and trying to murder the ball, instead of putting a good, clean swing on it. Using a device that measures bat speed, Walton showed his rookie that her hardest swings -- get this -- were actually 5 to 7 mph slower than her smooth and balanced ones.
“You can tell them all you want,” Walton said earlier this week in addressing his hands-on work with Kvistad. “But when you show them with a little bit of technology, it makes a big difference.”
It did Saturday in NCAA Super Regional play.
Kvistad stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first inning against Kentucky, after both senior sluggers Lauren Haeger and Bailey Castro had struck out with runners at second and third. After Taylore Fuller was plunked on the wrist by Wildcats pitcher Kelsey Nunley, the bases were loaded for a Kvistad; she of just two hits in the last 42 days and none over the last nine games.
That’s when Kvistad (right) laid a textbook swing on a 2-2 pitch from one of the toughest, most battle-tested pitchers in the Southeastern Conference, lacing a line drive over UK's Breanne Ray in right field for a bases-clearing double.
Let's hear it for technology.
“I worry about my next at-bat and not about what’s happened in the past,” she said.
Good thing. Kvistad’s teammates were certainly fired up on her behalf, as her three RBI made for a big inning and paved the way for a 7-0 win in Game 1 of the best-of-three Super Regional. Haeger, one of three finalists for NCAA Player of the Year, pitched a two-hit shutout to run her record to a dazzling 27-1 and also hit a solo home run. Kirsti Merritt had a two-run shot that broke a homerless streak for the junior center fielder that dated to March 27.
The Gators (54-6) have now won all four of their NCAA Tournament games by shutout (Haeger with three of them) and now stand 14-1 collectively in NCAA play the last two seasons, with opponents going scoreless in 12 of them.
But Saturday's three extra base hits nearly matched the four UF tallied in winnings its three regional games last week and that certainly put a smile on Walton's face.
Especially after Kvistad got things going.
“I was so happy to see her step up like that,” Haeger said.
When the Gators jump on a team 4-0 in the first, they’re going to be very difficult to beat, given their pitching and defense.
“It was about setting the tone early,” Walton said. “A freshman, getting her first postseason hit and RBI -- and none bigger than that. We really had to have that, especially against Kelsey Nunley.”
That’s because after the first, Nunley set down Florida’s next 10 hitters, before giving way Meagan Prince, who set down the three Gators she faced, before giving way to Erin Rethlake, who faced three UF hitters and was rocked by Merritt and company for three runs before Nunley was summoned back to the circle down 7-0.
But really, the damage was done much earlier.
“That was a tough first inning,” said Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson, who along with the Wildcats (32-25) thought she’d gotten out of the inning at 1-0 on a groundout by Kvistad, but the home plate umpire ruled the ball hit the batter’s foot for a foul. “That [hit] really put us in a hole. [Fall behind like] that against Haeger, arguably the best player in college softball, it’s going to be a tough day.”
The goal for the Gators, of course, is to make Sunday the really tough day for the Cats; as in elimination day. UF will have two games to win one, with the survivor advancing to Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City. Florida has gone seven of the last eight years.
Kvistad is one of several Gators, obviously, who has yet to get there. On Saturday, she not only looked like she wanted to get there, but like she belonged there.
“She looked very settled and comfortable,” Walton said.
UF is 13-1 all-time in home Super Regional games, so maybe she’s settling in with the rest of them.
Arkansas Gatorade Player of the Year KeVaughn Allen, who led his high school team to a third straight state championship, was sold on the recruiting re-pitch by new UF basketball coach Michael White. [Photo courtesy of The Arkansas Press-Democrat]
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Each time Michael White spoke to KeVaughn Allen the conversations became more and more promising. That was a very good sign.
When White was named the new Florida basketball coach nearly two weeks ago, he basically had to re-recruit the class of four incoming Gators, headlined by Allen. Each of the prospects signed up to play for Billy Donovan and the previous staff, so White had some selling to do.
Of himself, his assistants and how he was going to play.
“But they were all fond very fond of the University of Florida,” said White, who ultimately kept to three of the four players signed by the previous staff for the 2015-16 season. “Fast-tracking a relationship was of the utmost importance with all these guys, just to give us a chance.”
The 6-foot-3, 170-pound Allen led North Little Rock to a third straight Class 7A Arkansas state championship, scoring 28 points in the title game. Donovan’s departure put Allen on the fence, amid reports (both in Arkansas and from national college basketball writers) that he would join Atlanta power forward Noah Dickerson and ask out of his UF national letter of intent.
But White, who won 101 games in four seasons as head coach at Louisiana Tech, was undeterred. White travel to Arkansas and met with Allen, showing him video of the up-tempo, pressure-defense style he’s bringing to Florida. The coach followed up those meetings with phone calls, text messages and more emailed videos. With each conversation and exchange of information, the odds of keeping Allen solid to the Gators got better.
For context, those odds -- in the wake of Donovan’s departure -- probably started at 40-60, but slowly began tipping in Florida’s favor the more White was injected into the equation.
50-50 ... 60-40 ... 70-30
Then came Monday’s conversation.
“I’m about 90-10, Coach,” Allen told White.
Said White: “Can we get you to 95?”
“Well then, how ‘bout 100?”
When Allen, who averaged 25.2 points 6.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 3.1 steals per game as a senior, arrives for the Summer B semester, he’ll step into a backcourt fray that already includes junior Kasey Hill and sophomore Chris Chiozza, both of whom either started or logged significant minutes last season, redshirt freshman Brandone Francis (who sat out last season while gaining academic eligibility) and fourth-year junior swingman DeVon Walker (who missed last season with a knee injury).
“KeVaughn is a big-time athlete and a bit-time competitor,” White said. “He can really score and handle the ball, but he’s also a winner. I’m excited to coach him.”
Allen’s freshman class also includes 6-9, 190-pound Kevarrius Hayes, by way of Live Oak (Fla.), who averaged close to 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, along with Keith Stone, a 6-7, 240-pound combo forward from Deerfield Beach (Fla.) Zion Lutheran, who’s received praise on the club circuit for nice big man’s touch from the outside.
White on Hayes: “He’s a long athlete with a good motor and great work ethic. He was really excited to be a Gator, being from right down the road. I think his ability to run and jump -- complimenting his length -- make him a really good fit for what we’re trying to do here, schematically. Especially on defense.”
White on Stone: “Offensively, he’s a fit. He’s very talented. Great ball skills and a nice stroke for a kid his size. What I really like about him is he loves the game, is a gym rat, and is excited to be a Gator.”
“I’d like to see the Kirsti Merritts, the Bailey Castros, Lauren Haegers and Taylore Fullers, just for them to be RBI-getters. Get out there and drive balls in the gap. That’s what they’re good at.” -- Florida softball coach Tim Walton after Friday night's NCAA game.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- To understand top-seeded Florida’s performance in Saturday’s second-round NCAA Regional game you have to go back to Friday night’s first-round game.
And the above quote from the Gators coach.
Tim Walton (left) had watched four of his most reliable upperclassmen and best run-producing hitters combine to go 4-for-34 over the previous four games, with UF going just 2-2 in those outings. Walton’s remarks came after the Gators had defeated Florida A&M 6-0, an outcome minus any real mashing from players he needs making big-time contact, especially this time of year.
Now, fast-forward to Saturday’s date against Hofstra, champions of the Colonial Athletic Association, winners of 12 of its last 13 games, ranked 13th nationally in RPI, and armed with a pair of pretty good pitchers.
Junior Kirsti Merrit, the second batter in UF's first inning, smoked a double off the left field wall. The next hitter, senior Lauren Haeger, bounced a RBI-single into left field. After senior Bailey Castro popped out (more on her later) and freshman Nicole DeWitt reached on an infield single, junior Taylore Fuller parked a two-out, two-strike pitch over the fence in left-center and just like that the Gators were up by four runs.
About two hours later, Haeger polished off yet another outstanding pitching performance with a 7-0 shutout victory that moved UF (52-6) into Sunday’s championship bracket against Florida Atlantic (39-18-1), where one win will bring another home Super Regional to Pressly Stadium next weekend.
Welcome back, Gator bats.
Senior Bailey Castro is all smiles after smashing a solo homer Saturday in the sixth inning to cap UF's 7-0 defeat of Hofstra in second-round NCAA Tournament play. [Photo by Jim Burgess]
“When we get hit, we come back and hit harder,” Fuller said after crushing her 12th homer and pushing her season’s RBI total to 51, second-best on the team. “If someone is going to take a shot at us or criticize what we’re doing, we’re going to come back and prove you wrong. We’re going to show we are the hitters who can produce runs for our team.”
The one who made issue of the missing bats, of course, was Walton, who has proven season after season to be masterful when it comes to pushing the right buttons with his players.
The Gators, with the bulk of their roster back from last season’s first NCAA championship squad, are coming off another Southeastern Conference regular-season title and just happened to find themselves in a lull at a time of year where’s lulls can end a season.
He made a few remarks that clearly caught a few players’ attention. About 18 hours later, he walked off the field Saturday after watching his team spread around 15 hits, most of good, solid contact. Two came from Merritt, three from Haeger, two more from Fuller, and one from Castro, who lashed a solo home run in the sixth inning, just for good measure.
“Being 3-4-5 hitters, the [No. ] 6 hitter, we are the RBI producers,” said Castro, now with a team-best 16 homers. “We were struggling a little bit. We talked this morning. Postseason [can come down to] one run at a point of the game, so whatever it takes. Today we just tried to step it up. The bulk of the lineup just tried to put better swings on better pitches.”
That’s exactly what Walton talked about in his post-game media chat Friday (and presumably again with his players Saturday morning). Against the Pride, the Gators walked to the plate and, basically on cue, answered his challenge.
“Really, really happy with the way we scored five runs with two outs. That’s the nature of the postseason. You’re going to have to do a good job of getting hits with two strikes and two outs,” said Walton, whose club was 1-for-12 versus FAMU with runners in scoring position, but went 2-for-2 in that situation in the first inning alone, with Fuller’s homer the big blow. “If you had a camera on me, I was pretty excited about that hit.”
We didn’t have a camera on him, but if we did it would have revealed a very animated fist pump.
Walton’s words worked.
They usually do.
UF coach Tim Walton is looking for someone other than Kelsey Stewart (right) to start chipping in with some big hits. Stewart had a triple -- one of just two extra-base hits for the top-ranked Gators -- to lead off Florida's first inning in Friday night's 6-0 defeat of Florida A&M in opening-round NCAA Tournament play.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Taylor Schwarz had just popped to first base to end the fifth inning Friday night, but her host Florida Gators were still shutting out Florida A&M in first-round play of the NCAA Tournament.
The Rattlers, in fact, had yet to register a hit.
In the FAMU dugout, that’s when outfielder Amanda Weaver gathered her team and asked a question.
“Do you understand what just happened?”
They didn’t, but Weaver, the senior, was delighted to enlighten them. The last four times the Rattlers had faced the Gators -- three of those with Weaver in the lineup -- UF won 12-0 in a run-rule shortened five innings, 20-2 in five innings, 9-0 in five innings and by an 8-0 count in the NCAA Tournament in five innings just last year.
But this game was going to sixth inning ... and actually made it to the seventh.
Top-seeded UF went on to shut out FAMU 6-0 behind a masterful one-hitter by freshman Aleshia Ocasio, who tied a school record with 17 strikeouts. The first hit she allowed came with two outs in the seventh -- a single down the right-field line by none other than Weaver -- in her debut NCAA game.
She was terrific.
But on a night when most filed into Pressly Stadium thinking they’d see a fireworks show crammed into five innings, the Gators (51-6) managed just eight hits and only two for extra bases. Two-time All-America second baseman Kelsey Stewart led off the UF first with a triple and helped stake Florida to a 2-0 lead, but after that the best the Gators could do was a run each in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth.
Truth be told, Stewart is the lone Gator hitting with any consistency of late, with the team having scored just one run its Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinal loss to Tennessee and only two in a regular-season ending defeat at Missouri. Yes, the Gators did pound South Carolina 10-1 to open SEC Tourney play, but of their nine hits Stewart had four (and two of the three for extra bases).
Something is missing from this team right now and the reason may be as simple as going seven days since the last game.
“Offensively, we did what we needed to do,” UF coach Tim Walton said. “We left some runners in scoring position, had some throw-away at-bats, but we hadn’t played in a week.”
UF will face a pretty decent Hofstra (38-12-1) team in Saturday’s winner’s bracket game, so it’s time to liven things up at the plate. Walton was pretty specific about where he’d prefer the punch, too.
“I’d like to see the Kirsti Merritts, the Bailey Castros, Lauren Haegers and Taylore Fullers, just for them to be RBI-getters,” Walton said of his best offensive, run-producing hitters not named Stewart. “Get out there and drive balls in the gap. That’s what they’re good at.”
Haeger, the SEC’s career home run leader, is hitless in her last 14 at-bats. She got an RBI Friday, but on a deep groundout between second and short, with Merritt barreling all the way around from second to score.
That’s not the kind of quality at-bat Walton is looking for right now.
“It’s OK to strike out every now and then with runners in scoring psotion. No problem,” he said. “But we don’t need [Haeger] getting singles and moving runners along when we need RBIs. She knows that. She’s an RBI-getter. That’s what we’re looking for.”
It’s a search that’s been going on for two weeks. In the last four games, the combination of Merritt, Castro, Haeger and Fuller has gone a collective 4-for-34 (that’s an average of .118).
The Gators (especially those Gators) know those numbers need to improve this weekend.
Maybe Friday was just a night to get back to taking live cuts against real-life opposition. NCAA opposition, no less.
“It was about really getting out the kinks,” Stewart said. “Making sure we made good contact, not striking out and being on plane with the ball. We still produced.”
Enough to win fairly easily. Enough to advance, which is the only object this time of year, no matter the foe.
And even if it takes all seven innings.
Updated: 11:16am, May 12
CHARTING THE GATORS
(Charting Michael White, the player, actually)
In 1994, Ole Miss signed a stocky, feisty point guard from New Orleans named Michael White. He was 6-foot-1, 180 pounds and had the mentality of a defensive back (sometimes a linebacker). A month into his Rebels career, White was starting for Coach Rob Evans and went on to start 109 of his 117 career games, score 597 points, dish 370 assists, grab 222 rebounds and make 76 3-point shots. He also helped Ole Miss to back-to-back Southeastern Conference West Division titles and reach the NCAA Tournament in 1997, ’98 and ’99 after making the field just once in school history.
Along the way, White faced Florida five times and won three of those games. He was 3-0 against Billy Donovan, the coach he officially replaced Monday.
“That would surprise me, if that’s true,” White said Monday.
Oh, it’s true. We checked to be sure.
Hardcore SEC fans may remember White.
For the rest, here’s a history lesson of his games against the Gators.
Jan. 20, 1996 (Oxford, Miss.)
Florida 59, Ole Miss 55
Recap: The Gators went to the “Tad Pad” in Coach Lon Kruger’s final season and won behind senior forward Brian Thompson’s 14 points and nine rebounds, both career highs. White, a freshman, finished with seven points on 3-for-4 shooting to go with three assists.
March 7, 1996 (New Orleans)
Florida 75, Ole Miss 62
Recap: In opening-round play of the SEC Tournament -- not far from where White was a standout prep player, Jesuit High, which also produced Will Clark, Rusty Staub and Harry Connick Jr. -- the Gators got 22 points and five assists from senior guard Greg Williams and earned the right to bludgeoned in the tournament quarterfinals by eventual national champion Kentucky. White had seven points, but was just 1-for-7 from the floor, with three assists. A week later, Kruger bolted Florida to become head coach at Illinois.
Feb. 23, 1997 (Gainesville, Fla.)
Ole Miss 67, Florida 65
Recap: Guard Joezon Darby hit a 3-pointer with 16.5 seconds left that completed a big comeback for the Rebels and clinched their first West Division crown. The Gators, playing with just six scholarship players in Donovan’s first season, blew an eight-point lead in the final 12 minutes, with guard Keith Carter (17 points) doing most of the damage. UF guard Eddie Shannon’s runner to tie the game with six seconds to go rimmed out. White had four points, four assists and two rebounds in a game attended by just 5,833 at the O’Connell Center.
Jan. 7, 1998 (Oxford, Miss)
Ole Miss 90, Florida 79
Recap: White’s statistical line wasn’t very impressive -- 3 points, 2 assists, 4 fouls -- but it was his defense on Gators star guard Jason Williams that helped fuel the win for the 14th-ranked ranked and surging Rebels. In 23 minutes, White chased and harassed Williams, who came into the game as the SEC’s leading scorer (18.1 ppg) and assist man (7.0 pg) into 6-for-19 shooting from the floor. Though Williams finished with 17 points, he was just 1-for-8 in the first half, two assists and five turnovers. Jason Smith led the Rebels with 20 points and seven steals, as Ole Miss improved to 11-1 for the first time since 1936-37.
Feb. 6, 1999
Ole Miss 79, Florida 68 (Gainesville, Fla.)
Recap: This time, it was the Gators who were surging in Year 3 under Donovan. Winners of 12 straight home games and two days removed from a stunning home upset of defending national champion Kentucky, the Rebels came to town and doused the red-hot Gators behind 20 points from Carter and forward Marcus Hicks. The Gators got off to a slow start for a variety of reasons: forward Brent Wright arrived to the game late due to a funeral; assistant coach Anthony Grant did not come to the game due to a family emergency; forward Mike Miller and guard Kenyan Weaks combined for five first-half minutes due to foul trouble; Donovan was hit with a technical foul when in protesting a call he stepped onto the floor and was barreled over by official Doug Shows, sending both to the floor. “I tried to get in his way,” Donovan said afterward. “[And then] went after him after that pretty good.” The game marked the first time since 1987 UF played before back-to-back home crowds of 12,000-plus at the O'Connell Center. As for White, he went 2-for-2 from the floor and 5-for-7 from the free-throw line for 9 points to go with four assists, three rebounds, two steals and just one turnover.