Friday July 25, 2014 Culpepper, Gators fans ready for Rays' 'Chomp at Trop'
Updated: 11:31am, July 25
Welcome to Harry Fodder!
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.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The NBA has called and Billy Donovan has answered.
That’s all the Florida Gators basketball coach would say on the subject Thursday.
“It’s always flattering, but at the same time, I’ve always said that I’m very happy here and like it here,” Donovan said during his first meeting with the media since the 2013-14 season ended with a loss to eventual national champion Connecticut at the Final Four in Arlington, Texas. “I like where the program is and the direction we’re going.”
Pressed on whether he had closed the door on the NBA, Donovan said, “I fully plan on being back next season.”
The Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks and Utah Jazz are the NBA franchises currently searching for coaches. How specific and lengthy were the conversations, Donovan was asked.
“I’ve got a few calls from a couple NBA teams. I’m going to leave it at that,” said Donovan, who famously accepted the the Orlando Magic job in June 2007 -- two months after winning the second of back-to-back NCAA championships -- only to change his mind two days later and return to UF. “After the Orlando situation, that’s all I’m saying. That’s it. So I’m not going to get into, ‘He’s lying, he’s not being truthful.’ I got a couple of calls, that’s all it is.”
As far as hard news goes, that was pretty much was it also. The bulk of Donovan's 20 or so minutes focused on the arrival of UF's newest front court additions: 6-foot-10, 250-pound Jon Horford (pictured above), the transfer from Michigan who will be eligible to play in 2014-15 as a post-graduate student, and 6-10, 245-pound sophomore John Egbunu, who will sit out the upcoming season per NCAA rules.
Here’s Donovan on:
* Horford, who is the younger brother of former UF All-American Al Horford and averaged 3.8 points and 4.2 rebounds while playing 14 minutes a game as a reserve for the Wolverines: “The thing that he’ll bring to our team is certainly a lot of success at Michigan while he was there. Some very good teams, some deep runs in the tournament. He’s got an understanding of what goes into winning. He’s got a really, really good work ethic. He has natural leadership qualities and leadership abilities. He’s here on campus now. He’s already in school. He’s getting acclimated with the players and what we’re doing here. But I think he gives us maybe a little bit more experience in our front court with the loss of Will [Yeguete] and Pat [Young] and Casey [Prather], another older guy. ... Even though he’s only got one year to play, I think the transition for him will be pretty smooth.”
* Egbuno, who as a freshman at South Florida averaged 6.2 points and 7.4 rebounds on his way to be named to the American Athletic Conference All-Freshman team. “He has unbelievable upside and potential. He's really long, he's athletic. I think this year, sitting out, will be really, really important for him in terms of his development. He did some really great things for South Florida this year. He's got incredible upside, just his size, his athletic ability. His potential is huge. He wants to be really good player. He knows he needs development in skill. He's probably not a polished offensive player with his back to the basket, although I think this year could be important in helping him do that.”
* On center Damontre Harris, who never played a minute in two years at UF after transferring from South Carolina, and earlier this month left the program for the second time since December. Donovan said encouraging Harris to move on had nothing to do with the former Southeastern Conference All-Defensive Team member being a trouble-maker or disrespectful. “He had to earn his way back and he had every opportunity to do that. He had a whole semester to do that, and just could not do the things he needed to do, [that] we expected him to do. What Scottie Wilbekin had to do [to earn his way back from suspension last summer] was way, way more difficult than what Damontre had to do, because when Scottie’s situation happened it was in the offseason and he was totally removed from our team. This guy was in practice. He was used on the scout team. The things we're talking about were like going to class, being on time, being in the weight room, lifting, showing up to practice, those kind of things. Basically, we evaluated him over that two and a half, three months over that second semester and clearly nothing had changed at all. And I was just not going to have him come back in this kind of situation.”
* On what could be the most pronounced difference in next season’s UF team compared to the one that just went 35-3, including 30 wins in a row. “The group we have coming back right now is not a disciplined group, and in order for them to be successful they’re going to have to get disciplined. I’m not talking about discipline in terms of off-the-court. I’m talking on the court; of doing your job more often than not. And getting that reliability and accountability and responsibility that you are going to do your job. We had [Dorian Finney-Smith], Kasey Hill, Chris Walker, DeVon Walker; all those guys had discipline problems [on the floor] last year. That’s why you saw them up and down. That’s why you saw their minutes during the season up and down; their discipline was up and down. There were moments when Kasey Hill showed us some great flashes of who he can be. And then there were signs of giving up 3-point shots and guys going around him. That never happened to Scottie Wilbekin. Now, Scottie wasn’t always that way. He developed into that. Patric Young developed into that. Kasey Hill needs to develop into that. ... Hopefully, they’ve taken from this group how disciplined they were, how connected they were and how they played together."
* This and that: Eli Carter, the Rutgers transfer who sat out last season mending a broken leg suffered his sophomore season, is “probably 80-85 percent” recovered and taking part full-bore in offseason conditioning. Carter was not able to do that last summer. ... The UF coaching staff is enthused about adding forward Alex Murphy, the transfer from Duke who comes eligible to take the floor when the fall semester closes in mid-December. Donovan said the 6-9 forward and brother of former UF star Erik Murphy is working to develop to more consistency with his scoring, but is considerably more skilled than Erik. ... Guard Dillon Graham is trying to work back from a pair of hip surgeries that sidelined the sophomore all of last season. Graham is not expected to be cleared for any contact work until as late as September or October, which figures to impact his development relative to next season.
Updated: 9:53am, May 22
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Billy Donovan will meet with the media Thursday morning for the first time since he guided the Florida Gators to the Final Four early last month.
At the top of the list of topics Donovan will address is the news that broke Tuesday regarding nomadic center Damontre Harris, who left the program two weeks ago for the second time in six months.
Harris, the 6-foot-10 junior who transferred to UF two summers ago after a solid two seasons at South Carolina, never played a minute for the Gators despite being eligible by NCAA guidelines the entire ’13-14 season.
Accountability issues last fall got Harris suspended from the team twice. In December, Donovan had had enough and dismissed Harris from the squad, only to agree to bring him back for the start of the spring semester with the understanding Harris would not play the rest of season and have to meet pre-determined requirements to be reinstated for the ’14-15 season.
He did not meet them.
As a sophomore in 2011-12, Harris averaged 6.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and was second in the Southeastern Conference with 2.3 blocked shots per game while being named to the league’s All-Defensive team. He certainly could have helped the Gators, but it’s not like they’ll miss him now that he's gone. As far as the rotation, he was never really here.
For Harris, his options are limited. Because he only has one year of eligibility left, he'd have to drop down to Division II classification to play right away, unless the NCAA granted him some sort of waiver, which is unlikely. He could also opt to give professional ball overseas a try.
As for the Gators and the low post, the addition of 6-10 transfer Jon Horford, by way of Michigan, offsets the loss of Harris. Horford averaged 3.8 points on 54.7-percent shooting and 4.2 rebounds in just under 14 minutes per game as a reserve for the Wolverines. All told, Horford played in 69 games the last two seasons, as Michigan advanced to the national title game in '12-13 and NCAA East Region final in '13-14.
Because Horford graduated from UM with a year of eligibility remaining and enrolled in post-graduate classes, he's eligible to play for UF next season.
The Gators also will benefit from the addition of 6-10, 245-pound sophomore John Egbunu, whose transfer from South Florida became official earlier this week. Egbunu averaged 6.2 points and 7.4 rebounds for the Bulls on his way to be named to the American Athletic Conference All-Freshman team.
Egbunu, who had 20 points and 14 rebounds in a game against Memphis, must sit out next season per transfer rules, but his availability at practice will be a significant, especially for the development of sophomore center Chris Walker.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It’s going to seem weird around here next basketball season without Patric Young.
Hell, it already does.
Young, the consummate student-athlete and one of the most accomplished big men in the history of the Florida basketball program, is knee-deep in the evaluation process heading toward next month’s NBA Draft. So far, so good, also.
Projected as a likely second-round pick, Young went to Chicago last week and measured in at 6-foot-10 -- one inch more than his UF height -- to go with a 7-foot and 3/4-inch wingspan. And to exactly no one’s surprise, Young dropped down on the bench press and cranked out a combine-best 25 reps of 185 pounds and popped a 37 1/2-inch vertical jump that was second only to Arizona’s Aaron Gordon.
Young then went out and played well against the combine competition. His face-up game wasn't great (not his strength), but he made good on those baby jump hooks that helped the Gators win 30 in a row last season, capture both the Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament titles with a perfect (and unprecedented 21-0 mark), and advance to the Final Four. Young finished his career as just the 11th player in UF history to score at least 1,300 points and grab at least 800 rebounds (1,307 and 849, respectively).
His draft stock is on the uptick, which makes sense -- and shouldn't be a big surprise. Once the NBA draft starts venturing into the late-first round (and actually well before that in most years), it's all about projection and fit, especially with so many international players. A team that is looking for a reliable young player to develop for its frontcourt -- someone who who can come off the bench, play defense and be absolutely no problem in the locker room or away from the court -- may take a good, hard look at the former Gator.
In the below video, Young sat down during the combine with Seth Davis and my friends at CampusInsiders.com. He was asked about coming to terms with the disappointment of falling to Connecticut in the Final Four.
Leave it to @BigPatYoung4 to give such a true orange-and-blue answer.
“I hate to say it,” Young began, “I was just really glad Kentucky didn’t win it all.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Some of the best strength and conditioning work among the nation’s college basketball programs is done in the Florida Gators’ gym under the watchful and demanding eye of Preston Greene. All anyone need do is look at Patric Young, Will Yeguete and Casey Prather to know that.
Note: Chris Walker, who arrived in midseason, is finding out all about it now (much to his dismay).
This week, though, Greene said goodbye to another one of his proteges, top assistant Collin Crane, who will take over the strength program for Missouri State basketball starting next week. He’ll also oversee the men’s and women’s golf teams.
Crane, 23, played basketball at Division II Carson-Newman, so he has a built-in understanding of the best way to condition for the game. And now he’ll embark on the next step of his career with the experience of apprenticing under Greene, one of the absolute best in the business, with a chance to apply what he learned at UF to players in the Missouri Valley Conference.
“I’ve watched tape of them and tried to determine how they play,” Crane said, noting the Bears had a 20-point lead on unbeaten Wichita State during the season, only to become just another victim of the Shockers' 35-game winning streak. “It’s an opportunity to build a foundation with a really young team and make what we do in the weight room part of the culture there.”
Crane, who doubled as strength coach for the Gators men's tennis squad, is one of several support staff members leaving Coach Billy Donovan's program. Assistant video coordinator Billy O’Meara is headed to Minnesota to head up the video crew for the Gophers and Coach Richard Pitino, while the manager trio of Colby Donovan, Brandon Gilbert and David Moats -- yes, all of @UFManager fame on Twitter -- graduated earlier month.
I stopped by the gym Friday to say goodbye to Crane, who in addition to "smashing" Gators the last two years also was gracious with his time for the support staff’s workout sessions. For that, I say thank you.
How key is building relationships with players in the weight room? “I believe that is huge in this industry. We take those guys to the dark side, push them to their limits and see them at their weakest moments. You can’t take advantage of them. You have to build trust. You’re building them mentally and physically, but also tearing them down mentally and physically. You have to know where to draw a line once you’ve taken them to those weak spots.”
How has your philosophy for training athletes changed since coming to UF? “It definitely has, though I wouldn’t say it’s night and day. It’s improved my perception of how college athletes should train. We’re preparing these guys for battle. It’s not just about bench press and squat numbers. We’re sculpting these athletes and putting their body armor on them so they can withstand the longest season in college sports. Guys have to be tough.”
Two years ago, Will Greenberg was here and now he's the head strength coach at Army. Last year, Griffin Waller left to join the staff at Stanford. Now you. What will you take from your time with Preston? “The guy is the best. I don’t just mean that in a professional sense. He’s one of the top strength coaches in the country because he’s so innovative. He’s been in the industry for 16 or 17 years and he’s seen a lot of changes. There are a lot of strength coaches out there that haven’t adapted with the times. They don’t alter their methods and program to adapt to the evolution of how the game is played. I think Preston has done a great job of adapting and keeping in tune with the changes, pace and physicality of the game.”
How much pride did you take in a 21-0 Southeastern Conference record, 30 straight wins and a trip to the Final Four? “We take a lot of pride in that, but all the credit goes to the players. They buy into the system and realize the importance of what we’re doing in here. They’ve been committed. And you love it when you get through a season without any major injuries ... and then winning all those games along the way, that was special."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Forgive me while I step back into my NFL writers mode.
Anyone who follows this blog knows I like to revisit the old days, so while colleague Scott Carter hacks away about the Gators and the 2014 NFL draft, I figured it was a good time to delve into Florida’s draft history.
This is the fifth year the NFL has split the draft into three days, with the first round getting Day 1 -- Thursday night in prime time -- all to itself. No Gators are expected to go when Commissioner Roger Goodell gavel’s the proceedings to order, so it looks like it'll be the ninth time since 1983 a UF player has not been taken in Round 1.
Those other years: 1992, ’93, ’94, ’96, ’04, ’05, ’06 and ’12.
While we’re on the subject of first-round picks, the Gators have had 45 of them since running back Paul Duhart was taken in Round 1 (second overall) by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1945. That was the same year Steve Spurrier was born and, ironically, Spurrier happened to be the next UF player taken in the first round.
Spurrier was selected third overall by the San Francisco 49ers in 1967, but never developed into a top-flight quarterback, though he did set a franchise record with five touchdown passes in a game (a mark later broken by Joe Montana). Spurrier, however, hung around the NFL for 10 seasons and was a pretty good punter, but I'm not sure that disqualifies him the list of infamous first-round Florida flameouts along with the likes of John Reaves, Huey Richardson, Reggie McGrew, Derrick Harvey and Tim Tebow.
As for my list of best UF first-round picks, what do you think?
1) Emmitt Smith (Dallas, 1990, 17th overall). NFL’s all-time rushing leader with 18,355 yards, three-time Super Bowl champion, eight-time Pro-Bowler, four-time NFL rushing champion and first-ballot Pro Football Hall-of-Famer. Smith (pictured above right) is the only choice for this spot, right? Right.
2) Wilber Marshall (Chicago, 1984, 11th overall). Beastly outside linebacker -- maybe the greatest defensive player in UF history -- who starred on arguably the greatest defense in NFL history for the Bears. In 1988, Marshall (right) signed a free-agent contract before there was even free agency. He got big money from Washington and helped the Redskins win a Super Bowl, too.
3) Wes Chandler (New Orleans, 1978, 3rd overall). Was great for the Saints, but even greater as one Dan Fouts’ targets for those explosive “Air Coryell” offenses in San Diego.
4) Jack Youngblood (Los Angeles Rams, 1971, 20th overall). Linebacker from Monticello became the first UF-produced Pro Football Hall of Famer in 2001. One of the toughest, most ferocious and passionate players of his era.
5) Lomas Brown (Detroit Lions, 1985, 6th overall). An 18-year offensive left tackle whose career spanned three decades (1980s, 1990s and 2000s), was voted to seven Pro Bowls and named first-team All-Pro three times. Won a Super Bowl as a backup with Tampa Bay in ’02.
6) Kevin Carter (St. Louis Rams, 1995, 6th overall). Exemplary student-athlete, Carter became a Pro Bowl defensive end for the ’99 Super Bowl champion Rams and went on to star for Tennessee, Miami and Tampa Bay, as well. Carter (right) is one of only 30 players in NFL history to record 100 sacks in a career, Carter’s 104.5 is tied for 25th all-time.
7) Jevon Kearse (Tennessee Titans, 1999, 16th overall). They were calling him “The Freak” before everybody it seemed was called a “freak.” He broke the league’s rookie record for sacks with 14.5 and won ’99 Defensive Rookie of Year honors while helping the Titans reach the Super Bowl (where they lost to Carter’s Rams).
8) Fred Taylor (Jacksonville Jaguars, 1998, 9th overall). One of only 28 players in NFL history to reach 10,000 career rushing yards, Taylor currently ranks 15th on the all-time list with 11,695 yards. He retired after the 2010 season.
9) Trace Armstrong (Chicago Bears, 1989, 12th overall). Another 100-sacks club member. He checks in at 24th with 106. Armstrong returned to school to get his law degree, went on to become president of the NFL Players Association and now is agent for several high-profile coaches and sports media personalities.
10) Percy Harvin (Minnesota Vikings, 2009, 22nd overall). Tough to imagine 21 players better than this guy in that draft. Harvin was Offensive Rookie of the Year playing alongside Brett Favre. Granted, Harvin has had his injury issues -- that's why he was traded to Seattle for 1st, 3rd and 7th-round picks -- but he showed his dazzling game-changing skills in the Seahawks Super Bowl XLIII blowout of Denver in February with that 87-yard kickoff return to start the second half and break the game open.
Now, as an off-shoot (and perhaps more applicable, given where many of the 2014 Gators are rated heading into this year’s allocation), here’s a look at who I consider the 10 best bargain draft picks who came out of Florida.
1) Nat Moore (Miami Dolphins, 1974, 3rd round, 78th overall). He caught 510 passes for 7,466 yards and 74 touchdowns in 13 NFL seasons -- all with the Dolphins. He started his career catching passes from Bob Griese and ended it catching them from Dan Marino, both of Hall of Famers. In 1984, Moore was voted NFL Man of the Year and went on to be the color analyst for Gators replays on Sun Sports.
2) Brad Culpepper (Minnesota Vikings, 1992, 10th round, 264th overall). One of the all-time great student-athletes at UF -- also student body vice president -- Culpepper was considered too small for the league and lasted into a round that doesn't even exist anymore (the draft is just seven rounds now). Despite being the 29th defensive tackle taken that year, he went on to play nine seasons in the NFL. His bests days were as Warren Sapp’s nose tackle and wing man in that vaunted Tampa 2 scheme with the Buccaneers. He had 34 sacks in his career, including 8.5 in 1997.
3) Max Starks (Pittsburgh Steelers, 2004, 3rd round, 75th overall). Started 96 of his 125 NFL games and played on two Super Bowl championship teams with the Steelers, blocking for Ben Roethlisberger.
4) Don Chandler (New York Giants, 1956, 5th round, 57th). He eventually became the placekicker for Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers teams that won the first two Super Bowls and was named as the punter of the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1960s. Chandler still holds a share of the record for most field goals in a Super Bowl (4). Oh, and in 1965, he had -- get this -- a 90-yard punt in a game against the 49ers.
5) David Little (Pittsburgh Steelers, 1981, 7th round, 183rd overall). Played 12 seasons in the NFL, started 125 games, including 81 in a row during one stretch. Little died in 2005 at the age of 42 when he accidentally dropped 250 pounds of bench-press weights on his throat.
6) Alex Brown (Chicago Bears, 2002, 4th round, 104th overall). Played nine NFL seasons, all but one with the Bears, and started 123 of 145 games -- losing to Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XL at Miami -- and totaled 45.5 sacks.
7) Bobby McCray (Jacksonville Jaguars, 2004, 7th round, 249th). Played four years with the Jaguars, but made a much bigger name (and more money after signing a five-year, $20 million free-agent deal) with the New Orleans Saints. McCray put the infamous “bounty” hit on Arizona’s Kurt Warner in a 2009 playoff game, then a week later did the same to Favre against the Vikings and was fined $20,000 for his actions.
8) Ray McDonald (San Francisco 49ers, 2007, 3rd round, 97th overall). Has been a key player on the 49ers defensive line the last several seasons and started in Super Bowl XLVII won by the Baltimore Ravens. McDonald, who signed a $20 million contract extension in 2011, has 134 career tackles and 13 sacks.
9) Bobby Joe Green (Pittsburgh Steelers, 1959, 9th round, 102nd overall). Still holds the UF record for punting average in a season (44.9 yards). Green (that's his football card to the right) was traded to the Bears in 1962 and was a member the ’63 NFL championship squad coached by he legendary George Halas. Green died at his home in Gainesville in 1993 at the age of 57 following a heart attack.
10) Cooper Carlisle (Denver Broncos, 1999, 4th round, 112th overall). He was neither flashy nor talkative during his UF days, but Carlisle was a mid-round draft pick of Mike Shanahan's and and stuck in the NFL as an offensive guard for 13 seasons, playing in 190 games and starting 133 of them.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Jaterra Bonds was listening to the keynote speaker during Thursday’s luncheon for graduating University of Florida student-athletes when her phone started vibrating. The caller ID said it was basketball coach Amanda Butler.
Bonds quietly answered.
“Step outside really quickly,” Butler said.
Bonds popped out of the Gator Room and then got the news; the WNBA Indiana Fever was wondering if Bonds, the point guard, top scorer and unquestioned leader of the Florida’s 2013-14 NCAA Tournament squad, might be interested in coming to tryout camp this weekend.
First, there was silence, the deafening variety, followed by some some stammering.
“It was so emotional,” Bonds said. “I didn’t cry, but I was sort of lost for words.”
Added Butler: “I know the kid well enough to know exactly what her face looked like and what was going through her mind. She didn’t scream, but she was over the moon. Jaterra wanted a chance so badly and didn’t think it was going to happen, but you never know when those opportunities are going to come. You have to be ready.”
She wasn’t taken in the WNBA draft last month, so Bonds will have to do it the hard way. That’s OK, too. Bonds, the Gainesville P.K. Yonge product who averaged 15.6 points as a senior and finished seventh on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,602 points and first in career minutes played with 4,294, has never been one to take the easy route. In fact, she was all set to give professional hoops overseas a crack this summer.
Then her phone rang at lunch.
"I can't believe it," she said.
Now, Bonds will finish up classes Friday, be on a plane Saturday to Indy, deal with tryouts and preseason games next week, then be back the following weekend walk the O'Connell Center's graduation stage and pick up her degree in telecommunications.
But first, you can say she has the Fever.
“Before that phone call, everything was up in the air, but you just never know when you might get that call,” Bonds said. “You just want to be ready -- and I will be ready when I get there, I promise you that.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Redshirt freshman safety Marqui Hawkins has decided to transfer from the University of Florida and look to continue his collegiate football career elsewhere.
A 6-foot-1, 213-pounder from Columbus, Ga., Hawkins was part of Florida's 2013 signing class and came to UF as a wideout. He did not play during the fall season and was moved to the secondary during spring practice by the coaching staff.
Hawkins had one tackle in the Orange & Blue Debut spring game earlier this month.
“Marqui came to me and expressed an interest in getting a fresh start on the football field,” Gators coach Will Muschamp said. “He was never in trouble off the field and was attentive in the classroom. We appreciate the way he carried himself and represented the program and wish him nothing but the best of luck in the future.”
Hawkins, who caught 41 passes for 800 yards and six touchdowns during his senior season at Columbus Carver High, chose UF over a list of 15 schools that also included Clemson, Tennessee, Southern Cal and North Carolina.
“I appreciate the support that has been in place since the day I got to Gainesville,” Hawkins said. “I will always remember my boys in the locker room and the coaching staff, but I think it’s in my best interest to get a fresh start playing football somewhere else. I will be watching next fall as the program continues to rise back to the top.”