Friday August 28, 2015 Snap Chat: Trio of walk-ons in the long-snap mix
Updated: 11:17am, August 28
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The mention of special teams rarely engenders much excitement with fans during the preseason, especially for teams locked in quarterback derbies, searching for consistency at receiver and in quest of building an offensive line.
But that doesn't mean special teams aren't paramount to success.
Case in point: Last season’s South Carolina game. Breakdowns in kick protection -- a blocked chip-shot field goal in the final minutes, then a blocked punt in the final seconds -- turned what seemed to be a sure victory into a confounding defeat and set in motion the dismissal of Coach Will Muschamp.
With the razor-sharp attention to detail of Jim McElwain and his new staff's emphasis, you better believe the flawless execution of a kick is a goal on the checklist.
Junior Austin Hardin is back at placekicker, while third-year sophomore Johnny Townsend has locked down punting duties. Hardin went 7-for-10 on field goals and 12-for-12 on PATs in splitting time with Frankie Velez last season. Townsend was called to punting duty in 2013 amid the struggles of Kyle Christy and averaged 42 yards per attempt over the final six games, but sat out all of ’14 (gaining a redshirt year) as Christy bounced back to take the job.
Come the Sept. 5 season opener against New Mexico State, just who winds up getting the ball to Hardin and Townsend are duties still up for grabs.
“We’ve got a really good battle actually at long snapper,” McElwain said Thursday.
Those duties will fall to walk-ons.
Jonathan Haney (left), a fourth-year junior from Tampa Plant, and Ryan Farr, a freshman from Henderson, Nev., have alternated reps at long snapper for most of the preseason. Jacob Tilghman, a freshman from Dayton Beach, could be in the mix, as well.
In fact, McElwain said it may come down to one of them snapping short (extra points and fields) and the other snapping long (punts).
The job of holding is Townsend’s with running back Case Harrison, the sophomore from Gainesville who was placed on scholarship Saturday, backing Townsend up.
“They’ve all built a good rapport,” McElwain said. “Between those guys, I think the timing has been really good.”
Walk-on guard Lexx Edwards Edwards (center) with his family during Senior Night on March 3 at the O'Connell Center.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For three seasons, Lexx Edwards gave Billy Donovan and the Florida basketball program everything a walk-on could possibly offer. Edwards brought it every day at practice and set an example off the court in making the Southeastern Conference Academic Honor Roll and graduating in four years.
If Mike White likes guys who play hard and are committed, he’s going to love this guy.
Surprise! “Two-X Lexx” is back.
Roughly six months after being honored on UF’s Senior Night, Edwards learned last week he’ll be with the Gators again this season after being admitted to graduate school with a full year of eligibility remaining.
“I’m ecstatic,” Edwards said.
His career numbers show just 39 minutes in 21 games, with no points and eight rebounds, yet they tell nothing about the kid from Orlando Jones High who bypassed several Division I football offers because he wanted to go to a school with a high academic reputation. Edwards could never quite get competing out of his system and one day reached out to Donovan, got a walk-on tryout and was a fixture on the floor for three of the next four seasons (he was not on the team in 2012-13).
Now, three months after walking across the O’Connell Center stage to his sociology degree in May, Edwards will take the next step of his academic life -- he’s pursuing a masters in Sports Administration -- while remaining very much involved in the athletic side of it.
“We’re glad to have him,” White said. “What a great kid.”
For Edwards, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound guard who turned 22 on Wednesday, it’s not about the playing time or the glory of hitting shots (he’s taken just two in his career) or the punishing physical way he practiced that earned the praise and admiration of the former staff. It was the lure of another year around his UF brothers that was too much to pass by.
“Just being around the guys, the environment, the family, the bond and the relationships you create,” he said. “People ask me, ‘What do I get out of it?’ It’s the same answer I’ve always given. I enjoy helping guys achieve and have success and being a strong example on and off the court.”
On Wednesday, Edwards was back on the floor with his individual instruction group, with White and his assistants getting their first look at their new player’s work ethic.
And vice versa.
Like the bulk of his teammates, Edwards is used to the Donovan way. But also like his teammates, he’s sensing a lot of positive things about the transition to the new guy.
“The vibe I get from the guys, they all seem excited,” Edwards said. “Even though there is an element of unknown, they’re embracing it and ready to buy in and do whatever Coach White and his staff ask of them. It makes me excited to embark on this season; on this next phase of my life.”
Updated: 3:29pm, August 24
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Asked to relive his greatest basketball memory, Justin Leon didn’t hesitate.
“My high school Senior Night,” he said.
Leon then told of how his father made a rare appearance at one of his son’s basketball games at Conway (Ark.) High. The coaches drew up a play with higlight-reel potential they intended to run for their star player; that they intended for him to bring the fans -- and his father -- to their feet.
That play is still in Leon’s cell phone. Check out No. 11 below. It's a little grainy, but you'll get the picture (and, yes, that's him on the back end of the video, 94 feet away from the previous play, racing back to block a shot).
Leon smiles as he watches the play. He smiles when he talks about basketball. He probably smiles when he’s asleep at night.
“That’s just the kind of kid he is,” UF coach Mike White said of the newest Gators basketball player on the block. “And he’s happy as can be to be here.”
Again, the smile confirms that.
Leon, the 6-foot-8, 200-pound transfer forward from Shawnee (Ill.) Community College, has been in perpetual glee mode since arriving for orientation last week while strolling the campus and watched the students file in as UF summer turned to bustling fall. It was all quite the sight when you consider Leon, a junior college All-American, came to Gainesville from a Southern Illinois city of just 449 people, per the 2010 Census. He met his new teammates for the first time Sunday night, attended his first classes Monday and was then get indoctrinated into strength and conditioning coordinator Preston Greene’s offseason methods.
It's all new. It's all great.
“It’s crazy how it’s all come together,” said Leon, a rare lefty on the wing. “I truly believe God had a plan for me. I don’t know how else you can explain it.”
Leon averaged 21.5 points and 10 rebounds a game, one of just four JuCo players in the country to rank among the top 10 nationally in both scoring and rebounding while shooting 50.4 percent from the floor. White and his staff at Louisiana Tech saw Leon as an ideal fit for their full-court pressing and trapping ways.
When White left LaTech to take the UF job in the spring, Leon had every intention of honoring his letter of intent, assuming assistant coach Dusty May was promoted to the head job. But the Bulldogs went in a different direction, May joined the rest of White’s staff at Florida, and Leon asked for and was granted a release.
Arkansas, Ole Miss, Indiana and Kansas State all were in pursuit, but Leon already had a comfort level with the new Gators staff. The decision was an easy one.
For both sides.
“Great athlete, high motor,” UF assistant Darris Nichols said of Leon. “And I mean a really high motor.”
Just where Leon fits into the 2015-16 plan is something that will play out during preseason practice and beyond. He projects primarily at the "4" position, where seniors Dorian Finney-Smith and Alex Murphy alreadyb figure prominently. The coaches expect Finney-Smith to have an All-Southeastern Conference type of campaign and are hopeful Murphy can build on an encouraging offseason that he capped playing for Finland in the World University Games where he was the team's leading scorer.
Leon, meanwhile, is placing no expectations on himself. In fact, he’s open to anything.
“I believe I belong on this level. I’m a player who is full of energy. I can go and keep going. I will run all day,” Leon said. “If the coaches want me to go try and get 10 rebounds, I will do that. If they want me to be a vocal guy and cheer on the team, I will do that to. Whatever it is they need, that's what I will do.”
When he says so you, you believe it.
He says it, of course, with a smile.
ORLANDO -- Dan Cross is one of the best basketball players in University of Florida history, twice helping lead the Gators to the NCAA Tournament, including as point guard for the program's first Final Four team.
But he missed lining up against Michael White by just one season.
Cross left UF following the ’94-95 campaign, mere months before White showed up as a freshman point guard at Ole Miss for ’95-96 season.
“But I remember him,” White said. “And I’m glad I missed him.”
They didn’t miss each other Monday night in Orlando, where White, the successor to UF icon Billy Donovan, made his first booster stop when he spoke to a Central Florida Gator Club crowd of about 175 at the Citrus Bowl.
Cross, 43, settled in the Orlando area where he works as a life's skills mentor for former athletes and oversees an AAU program. He was invited to the Varsity Room to introduce the new UF coach.
“I’m sure we’ll talk in a bit about the kind of players we’re looking for,” White said. “Well, I’m looking for that, right there.”
He was pointing at Cross.
The Gator Great didn’t need the shoutout from White to get in the new coach's corner. He already was there.
“Obviously, the expectations are very high and the pressure on him to live up to those expectations -- not just in this state, but around the country -- is probably a little unfair and unrealistic,” said Cross, the school's No. 15 all-time scorer with 1,451 points and two-time first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection for Coach Lon Kruger who averaged 16.7 points over his final two UF seasons. “But I also believe Coach White’s expectations for his program exceed ours, which says something about him.”
White, who will speak at Lake County Gator Club Tuesday night and has stops at the Clay County and Palm Beach clubs next week, brushed over some opening remarks, running down his roster and providing an update of his first whirlwind three months in Gainesville. Players will begin trickling back to campus late this week, while UF’s newest player -- forward Justin Leon, out of Conway, Ark., by way of Shawnee (Ill.) Community College -- reported over the weekend for orientation.
The squad’s first full meeting will be Sunday night, with individual workouts and conditioning tipping off Monday, the same day classes begin.
No wasted time.
“We’re really looking forward to getting this thing going,” White said.
During his 30-minute talk, White made it clear his UF teams will play fast, just like his Louisiana Tech teams that were among the nation’s best in turnovers forced and 3-points attempted the last four years. The Gators will be pressing after every made basket, free throw or dead ball. At least that’s the plan.
“Love hearing that and it’s what players want to hear,” Cross said. “Now only is Coach White saying the right things, but he definitely has a system he believes in and he’s going to implement that system.”
In 19 seasons, Donovan reached the NCAA Tournament 14 times -- nearly tripling the school’s five all-time NCAA berths before he arrived -- to go with six SEC championships and four league tournament titles. That’s a lot of tradition from where very little tradition existed.
And a lot to uphold.
“It’s a mentality that you just have to have and believe in,” said Cross, who in 1991 arrived at traditionless UF and helped carve out the first nicks of historical success. “He’s not just replacing the greatest coach at Florida, but one of the greatest ever, but it’s a challenge he’s embraced. I believe wholeheartedly that he’s the right choice.”
Updated: 5:32pm, August 17
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Preston Greene has made it something of a tradition.
Set to start his sixth season as Florida basketball’s strength and conditioning coach, Greene (right) is a results-oriented guy -- what strength coach isn’t, right? -- and he wants his players to see results, embrace them and use them as motivation to produce further results.
Obviously, the tactics have a track record.
See “Prather, Casey” for example.
Better yet, see some of the data on UF’s current players, especially the three freshmen after just six weeks working with Greene and assistant Sean Ferguson. The pictures will below tell the story, as do some of the random numbers.
And the Gators are far from done with their training for Coach Mike White's first season.
“We're going to get after it when these guys get back from break for fall semester,” Greene said. “Summer B was just the appetizer. We’ve still got the main course and that take us into October.”
In the interim:
* Sophomore point guard Chris Chiozza is up 15 pounds, has increased his bench press from 195 to 240 and his vertical jump by 2 1/2 inches.
* Sophomore center John Egbunu, who sat out last season after transferring from South Florida, has decreased his body fat by 3 1/2 percent, down to 12.5 (having lost 18 pounds of fat). He more than doubled his chin-ups, going from seven to 16. Note: If that doesn’t impress you, think what it takes for a 6-foot-11, 255-pounder to pull himself up 16 times.
* Fifth-year senior Dorian Finney-Smith played at 210 last season. He’s 226 now (and it’s a very good 226).
As for the freshmen (and one very maturing upperclassmen), the below Before/After pictures speak for themselves.
* Freshman shooting guard KeVaughn Allen was the MVP of the state Arkansas state championship game last season and the state's 2015 Gatorade Player of the Year. He's expected to compete for a starting job at the two-guard spot as a rookie. He looked pretty toned when he got here in July. Looks even better now.
Freshman center Kevarrius Hayes has the quick-twitch athletic skills White and his staff look for to make their pressing and trapping style work, but he definitely has to get bigger and stronger if he's going to be a factor as a first-year post player in the Southeastern Conference. Hayes, senior class president and honors student at Live Oak Suwanne High, clearly is smart enough to understand that.
Freshman Keith Stone is a very good shooter, but to be truly effective in the White system his quickness and ability to guard both front court positions will be key. Stone came in with some baby fat, a good chunk of which already has been shed.
And then there's fourth-year junior DeVon Walker, who blew out his knee last summer and (obviously) did his part on the rehab comeback trail. Walker figures prominently in the team's plans for '15-16. The transformation his body has undergone since arriving as a 178-pound freshman from Winter Haven in 2012 is remarkable. He's now weights 214.
Updated: 5:05pm, August 6
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Football practice started this week, as everyone knows, but a little baseball practice is on the mind of a former University of Florida star.
Kevin Carter, once an All-America defensive end with the Gators and later an All-Pro with the St. Louis Rams, can’t remember the last time he tossed a baseball, but he plans on some playing catch with his son before throwing out the first pitch Saturday night when the Tampa Bay Rays host the New York Mets at Tropicana Field.
It’s the second “Chomp at the Trop,” held in conjunction with Gator Boosters and the Tampa Gator Club, as the Rays paying homage to Bay area UF fans with various merchandise and videos tributes. Note: Deadline to purchase discount tickets is midnight Thursday.
The Carter famly (along with wife Shima and 14-year-old son Zion) settled in Tampa after he played his final two NFL seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He'll make "Chomp" night in St. Petersburg officially orange and blue when he takes the mound for pre-game.
“I’m honored and humbled by the fact that I would be someone who the Rays would deem worthy to throw out a first pitch,” Carter said. “You think about all the people you’ve seen throw out first pitches; they’re usually celebrities or people who have accomplished amazing things. It’s just cool that someone would think enough of me to even ask.”
In the football arena, Carter definitely accomplished some amazing things. He starred at Florida from 1991-94, part of three Southeastern Conference championship teams. He was the No. 6 pick in the ’95 NFL Draft by the Rams, with whom he won a Super Bowl after the ’99 season, and retired in 2009 after 14 seasons tied for 26th in league history with 104.5 sacks. Carter is now a college football studio analyst with ESPN.
Still, his measured approach to Saturday's call from the bullpen is a little different than the one taken a year ago by his former UF teammate, Brad Culpepper, who showed up for his first-pitch assignment donning baseball pants. He even harkened back to his days as a prep star on the diamond by joking, “I get the first inning, right?”
“That’s hilarious,” Carter said. “And it sounds totally like Brad.”
Actually, Carter knows that many a first-pitch invitee over the years have ended up on SportsCenter for doing something other than throwing a strike.
Take 50 cent, for example.
Consider that Carter's nightmare scenario.
“As long as it doesn’t hit the ground and it’s something the catcher can handle, I’ll be all right,” Carter said. “I might just have to lob it in there, though. It's not that I'm worried about embarrassing myself -- I haven’t thrown a baseball in years -- but it would definitely embarrass my son if I end up on the news.”
Speaking of being in the news, the Florida football team is very much in it this week, as the Jim McElwain era begins with the first practices of training camp. A conversation with Carter would not be complete without getting his analyst's take on what lies ahead for his alma mater under a new head coach.
The way Carter sees it, McElwain brings a balance to the program that's been missing.
“One of the things that’s been lacking in the Florida program has been that certain pedigree on the offensive side of the ball. That teaching and offensive scheme that is centralized and starts from the time you get there and is maintained until the time you leave,” Carter said. “Continuity makes a difference as young players increase their IQ for the game.”
The UF defense has a big head start on the offense, thanks to what former Coach Will Muschamp put in place, Carter said. Carter played two years (2005-06) for the Miami Dolphins under Nick Saban and thus was in the defensive room when Muschamp was linebackers coach there in ’05.
Carter has tremendous respect for Muschamp’s knowledge for defense, especially when it comes to fundamentals, technique and details. Those are things that stick with players (no matter the coach) and can be nurtured by the new staff.
“I don’t think Florida has bad players on offense. They have enough to actually make a splash with this new coach,” Carter said. “But they already have a defense that should be one of the best SEC. That will help.”
Updated: 12:20pm, August 4
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The University Athletic Association and UF Department of Emergency Management joined forces last week in conducting a mock crisis situation in and around Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
The five-hour exercise -- dubbed “Safe Swamp” -- involved volunteers with simulated injuries, local law enforcement agencies, fire departments and other public safety personnel, with UF police stationed in the stadium area to direct pedestrian and vehicle traffic.
“Nobody wants a disaster to happen, nobody wants anything bad to happen, but you really have to be prepared for it,” said Chip Howard, UAA executive associate athletic director for internal affairs. “We go to great lengths here at the University of Florida to prepare for that, so this was a great opportunity to get everyone together and test the plan.”
GatorVision was there to chronicle UF’s all-hands-on-deck public safety game day plan.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Michael White hits the Gator Club circuit this month.
Florida's new basketball coach, who just put a wrap on his summer workouts, has all four of his Gator Club appearances set for the month of August. White, who left Louisana Tech in May to replace Billy Donovan, will make the first of his speaking engagements on Aug. 17 in Orlando, where the Central Florida Gator Club will convene at the Florida Citrus Bowl, beginning at 6 p.m.
On the night of Aug. 18, White will call on the Lake Country Gator Club at the Eustis Community Building.
White's other two stops will be the following week, at the Clay County Gator Club on Aug. 24 and Palm Beach County Gator Club on Aug. 25.
For details on all four appeareances, visit the UF Alumni Association page here.
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.