GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Nearly a month into the season, Kelsey Horton had started every game for the Florida softball team. All but one of those starts had been in right field.
Only one was behind the plate.
“You need to have someone ready to step in and play the catcher position in an emergency because that position is so prone to injury,” Gators coach Tim Walton. “Kelsey was what we had as a backup.”
In an instant, Horton became what the Gators desperately needed.
For UF’s Lipton Invitational, Walton put Horton on the dish for the weekend tournament. His contingency plan proved prophetic when the Gators’ regular superstar catcher/hitter/slugger Brittany Schutte, designated-hitting that day, suffered a broken jaw in a freak base-running accident against Gardner-Webb.
Just like that, Horton received a battlefield promotion that suddenly placed the junior from Valrico, Fla., in the most pivotal position on the field.
“We didn’t know how bad it was when it happened,” Horton said of Schutte’s injury. “I was expecting to catch the whole weekend anyway ... but I didn’t think I’d be catching the rest of the season.”
Nearly six weeks later, Horton is still catching and the Gators are still dominating like the national-championship contenders they’ve annually become. Third-ranked Florida (35-4) is on a six-game winning streak heading into Wednesday night’s game at Central Florida (28-10).
Since Horton donned the mask and pads, UF is 20-3, has won all six of its Southeastern Conference series, including a sweep of Ole Miss last weekend, and opens a three-game pack Friday against Auburn at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.
Credit Horton for stepping in and stepping up.
“It’s such a valuable position,” sophomore utility player Kasey Fagan said. “Kelsey’s taken over there, become a vocal leader and has really done a great job for us. We needed that.”
It didn’t take Horton very long to get comfortable, either. The day after Schutte’s injury, Horton bombed the first grand slam of her career in a five-RBI game against Tennessee State. Just last week, she went 3-for-4 with three RBI in a big road win at rival Florida State.
Heading to Orlando, the former Durant High star was hitting .347, with a team-high 10 homers. Her 36 RBI was second on the squad to pitcher/first baseman Lauren Haeger’s 37.
“I like to hit. If I’m hitting, I’m good wherever I’m playing,” Horton said. “My role as a catcher is a little different, but that’s where the team needed me. As long as I’m doing my job and making sure there’s no hole back there, I feel happy about that.”
Walton credits Horton for not only accepting the different role, but immersing herself in it.
“Defensively, she’s more like a freshman at that position because she just hasn’t had a lot of reps behind the plate,” he said. “Right away, she pretty much was all we had back there and when you don’t have anyone else behind you and pushing you then you have to find ways to be motivated. She did that.”
Walton described Horton as a “visual learner,” so the coaching staff provided close-up video looks to help hone her fundamentals and techniques as a catcher.
The intangible elements of the position she’s had to develop on the fly.
“The biggest thing for a catcher is being able to non-verbally communicate to everybody,” Walton said. “She’s got the best view in the house. She has to be able to translate what’s going on to our pitch-caller [in the dugout] -- like where the batter is setting up in the box -- and to our defense, and to our pitchers.”
Then there are times -- critical times -- when good ol’ fashion verbal communication comes into play.
“I’ve definitely had to become more of a vocal leader,” Horton said. “When I was playing right field, I didn’t have to call plays or anything like that out there; just make throws. Catching means being more tuned into the games, anticipating things; when the runner is going; where the play is going to be if the ball is in the infield or outfield. Just being a step ahead of everything.”
The Gators hold out hope that Schutte could return in the postseason, but neither Horton nor her teammates are going to get a step ahead on that potential development.
“She’s what we have back there,” Walton said of Horton. “And she should have a pretty good comfort level now.”
With five more series in the regular season, including a finale weekend showdown at No. 2 Alabama, Horton’s comfort and confidence should only improve as the Gators seek another deep postseason run they hope ends with a fifth straight trip to the College World Series.
“We could definitely use her bat back in the lineup,” Horton said of Schutte. “I mean, everything that’s happened, I’d trade it all right now for her to be back here and behind the plate. But for now, I’m just trying to do my best.”