GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The question was straight-forward enough. So was the answer.
“How many home runs did you expect to hit this season,” Florida softball coach Tim Walton asked Taylor Schwarz the other day.
The freshman first baseman wasted no time.
As a senior at Palm Beach Gardens last year, Schwarz hit five homers. Not exactly a boatload, so she anticipated an adjustment to major college competition and pitching.
Schwarz has seven homers in her rookie UF season. What’s going on?
“I really don’t know,” she said.
But like her coaches and teammates, Schwarz isn’t spending a lot of time trying to process why a Florida team that entered the season in full-blown rebuilding mode is playing some of the most determined and disciplined softball of the Walton era. Instead, the next practice and next game is the daily focus, providing yet another chance to build on the momentum.
Next up for the second-ranked Gators (44-5, 14-4) is a weekend visit from Southeastern Conference rival and 23rd-ranked Georgia (34-16, 11-7). The series opens Friday at 5 at Pressly Stadium and will mark the team’s final regular-season home stand.
UF currently sits a game behind Tennessee and two in front of Alabama and LSU in the league standings, but much can happen in the final two weekends in the nation’s best softball conference.
Truth be told, Walton isn’t talking much about it.
“Honestly, I think I would dig myself into a hole if I started talking about how important the SEC championship would be,” Walton said. “I love winning championships. Everybody does. But that wasn’t our goal. Our goal has always been to find a way to make the players we have better and we have two more series to do that. Maybe after the regular season is over, there can be a nice reflection -- maybe it’s a ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’ deal, who knows? -- but that hasn’t been a motivating factor at all. There is no dangling carrot, nothing like that. I want to get the most out of our players.”
Since that’s been the objective all year, why change? It’s working.
Take Schwarz, for example. She’s one of six first-year Gators that have become regulars -- along with second baseman Kelsey Stewart, third baseman and transfer Stephanie Tofft, catchers Aubree Munro and Taylore Fuller, plus center fielder Kirsti Merritt -- at five different spots and have blossomed into outstanding defensive players.
Schwarz, like the others, arrived last August with all kinds of promise, but acclimation to a new environment and competition takes time.
At least it’s supposed to.
“If you were to gauge our team’s success for the season, she would be an easy one to point to as a depiction of why we’ve been successful,” Walton said of Schwarz. “Here’s a player who hit .233 in the fall and now is doing this, this and this in the season.”
Like this: a .317 average (.340 in SEC play). This: fourth-most homers on the squad. This: fifth-most RBI (28). And this: no errors in 47 games at first base.
“My dad always talked to me about having a competitive greatness,” Schwarz said. “I was nervous when I got here and really didn’t know my spot on this team, but once we were into the season and playing, I think that inner-competitiveness sort of challenged me. You have to have that and I think a lot of the players on this team came here with that.”
Walton seconded the assessment.
“She’s one of several players who have taken their season’s expectation and raised the bar for themselves,” he said.
Stewart is hitting .399 and has been safe on 30 of her 32 stolen-base attempts. Tofft, a transfer from Northern Illinois, is batting .319, has knocked in 43 runs and played sensational defense at third. Munro and Fuller have platooned at the catcher’s spot and directed the defense and pitching staff, while Merritt gets on base and has a knack to get home (third in runs).
“Our whole team works hard,” Tofft said. “People didn’t expect much from us this year, especially having so many new players who had to learn the ways here at Florida and how Coach likes to do things. But this place is full of people with positive attitudes who want to win.”
And down the home stretch the Gators go, with a two more weekends to pad their postseason resume and head into the SEC and NCAA tournaments with confidence and momentum.
For now, there’s no time to reflect (or even admire) on what the team has done.
There’s still too much to do.
“Every day, we’ve got new challenges and new goals and new obstacles or new opportunities to get better,” Walton said. “You look at our statistics as a whole and they’re not that good. They’re just not. But if you look at some of the individuals -- where they were and where they are now -- they’re really good. That’s our focus. That’s the direction we want to continue to go.”