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Sunday May 20, 2012It's About the Program: Walton Makes Tough, Uncompromising Call

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Ken Eriksen had just guided cross-state foe South Florida to an upset of fifth-seeded Florida, eliminating the mighty Gators from NCAA play and advancing to the super-regional round for just the second time in the program's history.

It was a monumental moment for the Bulls.

Yet Eriksen, in his 15th season and now eight wins shy of 700 for his career, took a moment to recognize the situation Gators coach Tim Walton willingly placed the UF program in Friday when he kicked three starters - a trio of very good players -- off the team for disciplinary reasons.   

Sometimes decisions have to be made that impact innocent people. Big-picture circumstances, Eriksen explained, make such decisions non-negotiable.

"It's very tough. People are involved," Eriksen said after sophomore Bulls lefty Sara Nevins completed a three-game unbeaten run through the regional with a 1-0, five-hit shutout of the host Gators Sunday at Pressly Stadium. "We try to do the right thing. We're teachers at heart, coaches secondarily. You have to make the decisions longterm that are going to benefit your team and also your university."

Eriksen recalled the time he once suspended 13 players for breaking curfew, leaving him nine on scholarship to roll out for opening day.

First game vs. NCAA elimination game. Big difference.

Easier call, right?

"I think it's easy to make that decision once you make that decision," Eriksen shot back. "You do what's right."

Because Walton did what he felt was right, the Gators won't be going to the College World Series for a fifth straight year. To be fair, nobody knows if the outcome Sunday would have been any different had Sami Fagan (the team's leading hitter at .378), Kasey Fagan (18 RBI) or Coyle (10 homers, 34 RBI) been in the game. Their absence certainly was on the minds of the packed and pro-UF crowd when the Gators loaded the bases in the bottom of the sixth -- with no outs -- and watched as Samantha Holle (.184) struck out, Jess Damico (.214) struck out and Briana Little (.194) grounded out to end the inning.

Odds are there would have been some line-up juggling or a pinch-hitter to the plate.

Walton, though, wasn't going there.

"To be honest with you, that stuff right there has been happening all season," Walton said of the club's latest, last and most glaring example of poor situational hitting. "Bases loaded, we hit our worst this season. I think that was really the exclamation point to a season for some really young players putting a lot of pressure on themselves."

Yes, UF's regional was also an exclamation point made by a coach forced to make a decision that placed his team in difficult circumstances at the most pressure-packed point in the season.

Yet it was the only decision to make.

"At the end of the day, it's all about your team. It's all about your program," Walton said. "I'm not going to say too many words, but that's what it's all about. At USF, it's all about the Bulls. [Here], it's all about the Gators."

In this case, the players left behind had to pay the price.

"It was definitely a distraction," senior center fielder and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Michelle Moultrie said after the final game of her magnificent career. "It was hard for me."

Facing Nevins, one of the best pitchers in the country, only made it harder. She held the Gators to five hits. Maybe Sami Fagan's deft skills as a bunter or Coyle's power would have been the difference.

"Woulda, coulda, shoulda," UF catcher Kelsey Horton said.

Afterward, Eriksen praised his team's chemistry this season, something the Gators obviously were missing.

"This might have been the most together team I've ever coached," he said.

Clearly, Walton could not say that.

"I think it's a lesson for everybody," Walton said. "It's a lesson for me as a parent. It's a lesson for me as a coach. It's a lesson for the players and the staff. I just try to do the best job I can possibly do and gather everything I can do as a leader. The game --  what you do and how you compete? -- is a life's lesson for everybody."

In this case, a hard lesson.

But one that won't soon be forgotten.


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