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Friday May 4, 2012Gators off to Heart of Dixie in Search of Hits and an SEC Championship

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Tim Walton looked pretty sharp Thursday morning, decked out in a pink button-down shirt, colorful tie and khaki pants. A beard growth of several days gave the Florida softball coach the look of a guy heading off with his family on vacation. 


So did all the massive suitcases his girls rolled toward the bus. 


“I hope none are over 50 pounds,” Walton said.


Off to the Caribbean? Cozumel? Martha’s Vineyard, perhaps? Not exactly. 


Try 10 days in Tuscaloosa, Ala.


Not exactly a Priceline hot spot, granted, but it could make for quite the time, depending on how successful this unusually lengthy business trip turns out to be. Why a week in a half in the Heart of Dixie? Two reasons. 


Big reasons.


Sixth-ranked Florida (43-8, 20-5) opens a three-game series against No. 3 Alabama (43-5, 21-4) Friday at raucous Rhodes Stadium, a weekend of fast-pitch mayhem that will decide the Southeastern Conference regular-season champion.


The Gators can win the league crown outright only by sweeping the series. Two wins would mean a three-way share of the title, as Tennessee is a game behind Florida. Two or more losses means the Gators will finish behind both the Crimson Tide and Volunteers and take the No. 3 seed in the SEC Tournament next weekend.


Did someone just mention the SEC Tournament?


Turns out, that shindig also is scheduled for Rhodes Stadium, starting Thursday. Rather than returning home for a day, the Gators chose to just make a “staycation” of their time among the camellias, long-leaf pines and houndstooth hats.


“There’s a lot of things to do in Alabama,” Walton said.


“We’ll probably go to the mall,” sophomore pitcher Hannah Rogers said. “Maybe make some music videos.”


There will be time for some of that, but before the leisure itinerary is determined the Gators have some serious work to do on the softball field. UF has dropped three of its last four games, including a split in a two-game series against LSU and two losses last weekend in a home series against Kentucky -- the final outing a 2-0 shutout -- that marked the only SEC series the Gators did not win this season.


A troubling trend during the skid was Florida’s inability to take advantage of scoring opportunities. Walton spent a good part of practice this week focusing on situational hitting -- making contact with runners on base; better pitch selection at the plate -- but a stark reality awaits his team in Tuscaloosa.


Her name is Jackie Traina.


A sophomore right-handed pitcher from Naples, Fla., Traina is 29-1 with 247 strikeouts an ERA of 1.71 and ball that comes to the plate “as hard and heavy as any pitcher in the country,” Walton said. Traina is expected to pitch both Friday and Sunday.


Offensively, ‘Bama has eight players batting over .300 (UF has four) and two players in Amanda Locke and Kaila Hunt with 16 home runs (the Gators have four players tied for the team lead with 10).


Now, roll the whole “Roll Tide” aura that is Rhodes Stadium, one of the toughest venues of the country, plus the revenge factor rooted in UF’s ousting of ‘Bama from the College World Series last June (including a 16-2 bludgeoning), and it’s easy to understand why this weekend is shaping up as such a big deal.


And next weekend could be more of the same.


“There won’t be any monotony,” Walton said. “School’s out of the way. Now, it’s kind of sleeping in and softball. These kinds of trips are better than the ones during the season when they have school work and papers and projects to worry about.”


Come what may with Sunday’s game (and the series), Walton will give his players Monday off and travel Tuesday to Birmingham for practice. Worth noting: Alabama actually has a game Monday against Fordham; in New York, no less.


The Gators, meanwhile, just might be hanging at the mall. Or making music videos.


“It’ll be long,” senior centerfielder Michelle Moultrie said. “But it’ll be fun.”


Walton may not even shave; opting instead for the superstitious Stanley Cup playoffs look.


“Might keep it,” he said.


Yeah, it’s a big 10 days.



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