GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- She was one of the most decorated high school players in the state last season, but Florida freshman Taylore Fuller struggled with her indoctrination to college softball.
She was pressing at the plate, that was a problem, but her UF teammates were pressing with her and feeling that .136 average. They wanted badly for something positive to happen.
Then Fuller stepped into the box in Sunday’s series-decider at Auburn and skied the first pitch of the third inning over the left-field fence for the first home run of her young career.
The Gators dugout emptied.
“We ran out like there like we’d just won the College World Series,” sophomore pitcher and first baseman Lauren Haeger said. “We went crazy.”
From his place in the third base box, UF coach Tim Walton couldn’t help but smile. He wasn’t just happy, he was proud.
And a little pumped.
“They were happy for her,” he said.
Walton not only has a good team -- a surprisingly good one, at that -- but the eighth-year UF maestro is seeing a true team coming together; as in a group that plays for each other and does it the right way.
Fuller’s homer Sunday helped the Gators edge the Tigers 2-0 and get the Southeastern Conference season off on the right track while providing yet another jolt of momentum for a program that virtually everyone -- coach included -- envisioned in rebuild mode heading into the season.
Instead, Florida (25-2) has ascended to No. 3 in the nation with league rival and sixth-ranked Tennessee (22-4) coming to town for a series that begins Friday at 6 p.m. at Pressly Stadium, the first home conference series for a handful of UF’s players.
“To come here and play softball was a dream for me,” said freshman second baseman and slapper sensation Kelsey Stewart, out of Wichita, Kan. “Just having the word ‘Gators’ across your chest means you are held to a higher standard every day, so we’re playing for the name on our shirt and playing for each other. I love it.”
So does Walton.
Fuller’s long-ball heroics was more evidence of a Gators squad that needed to replace six starters from a squad that won 48 games and had its four-year run of CWS berths cut short in NCAA regional play has bypassed its expected growing pains.
The 2012 squad battled with chemistry issues, evidenced when Walton had to dismiss three players -- all starters -- two days before the NCAA Tournament.
When so large a chunk of a program vanishes, a backward step or two usually follows. That hasn’t been the case. Not even close.
Throughout the course of this magical run that started with 15 victories to open the season -- including huge wins over No. 5 Oregon, No. 3 California and No. 13 Arizona in a season-opening tournament out west -- it hasn’t been one or two players coming up with clutch moments, but a different one in different circumstances almost every time.
“We’ve won a lot of games that maybe we shouldn’t have won by just doing the little things and doing them the right way,” Walton said. “And we’ve won in so many different ways, whether with a bunt or a home run, a hit by pitch, a walk, an error, a shutout. We’ve won every way imaginable.”
Nine times this season, the Gators have come from behind to win. Four times, they’ve staged rallies when trailing in the fifth inning or later, including a pair of three spots in the sixth and seventh to erase a two-run deficit and shock defending national champion Alabama 8-4 on its home field March 6.
Three days earlier, UF’s three-headed pitching monster of junior Hannah Rogers, Haeger and sophomore Alyssa Bache teamed to throw the first combined perfect game in UF history, an 11-0 defeat of Presbyterian in the title game of the team’s home tournament.
That hasn’t been the only blowout, either.
- UF has outscored its opponents 207-45, with eight mercy-rule finishes.
- The Gators rank sixth in the nation in scoring at 7.67 runs per game and show their balance on the mound with a No. 6 ranking in ERA at 1.90.
- Collectively, Florida has taken 37 hit-by-pitch at-bats, a statistic that goes straight to toughness, according to Walton, with sophomore outfielder Briana Little accounting for 11 of those (just four off the school record of 15).
“We lost some really good players from last year’s team, but some of the ones that came in really wanted to learn and showed they wanted to get better and were willing to do whatever it took,” Haeger said. “They’re all talented, don’t get me wrong, but a lot of times players come to an elite program and are set in their ways and don’t think they need to improve on anything because everything has worked for them before. These girls aren’t like that.”
They arrived, saw opportunity and seized it.
That made it easier, at least for this bunch, to adapt to Walton’s demanding ways.
“I’ve never worked as hard as I’ve worked here,” said Stewart, the speedy leadoff batter who leads the team in average (.409) and runs (29) to go with a perfect 23-for-23 on stolen base attempts. “Our tempo at practice is almost game-like, but I love it.”
“A lot of us younger players knew there were spots to fill and big shoes to fill, but we really had no idea what we were getting into,” freshman catcher Aubree Munro said. “After that, we’ve just taken advantage of our opportunities and sort of fit right in. I guess we didn’t really know enough about the environment to be afraid of it.”
When Walton takes the field he sees a group that is athletic, competitive and tough. And, as Munro hinted, unafraid.
Not a bad set of traits to work with.
“Maybe if we lose a couple of those games early in the season, our confidence is different and we don’t have this sustained success,” Walton said. “But right now, no matter who we’re playing, it’s like we don’t feel like we’re going to lose. Not that we can’t lose. We lost a game last week. But when we go out there, I just think they feel like they’re going to win.”
Seven SEC series over the next two months could test that confidence. It was just last weekend the Gators pummeled Auburn 13-0 in the opener by run rule, then lost the second game 5-4, marking just the second defeat for the club all season.
How did they respond?
Fuller answered that in Game 3. Resoundingly.
“They’re not a lot of superstars out there for us right now, but you’d never know with how they’re playing,” Walton said. “They’re competing, but they’re really, really enjoying it.”
So is he.