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Gators freshman outfielder Kirsti Merritt is making her hometown proud.

Friday May 17, 2013Gators Freshman OF Merritt is Talk of Town Back Home

Gators freshman outfielder Kirsti Merritt is making her hometown proud.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- She is 86 years old and retired from teaching more than 20 years ago, but Rosa Lee Tomberlin remains active and in touch with the small community of Lake Panasoffkee, located about 70 miles south of UF's campus in Sumter County.

The town of around 3,500 residents is home to Gators freshman outfielder Kirsti Merritt, who last weekend introduced herself to the rest of the country with a pair of game-winning home runs in the Southeastern Conference Softball Tournament.

Merritt earned MVP honors for her momentous performance on national television in front of the ESPN cameras.

Back in Lake Panasoffkee, Tomberlin, who has known Merritt's family for decades, chatted up anyone who would listen her talk about the reigning Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week.

"Every time I leave the house I see somebody I know,'' Tomberlin said Friday.

On Thursday, five days after Merritt's two-run homer in the third inning put the Gators up for good in their 10-4 win over Missouri in the SEC Tournament championship game, Tomberlin stopped by Lake Panasoffkee Elementary School to say hello to Kelly Goodwin.

Goodwin is the assistant principal and was a pretty good slow-pitch softball player in her day, a former shortstop who led South Sumter High to the school's only state championship 25 years ago.

Goodwin is also Merritt's mother.

"I nearly squeezed her mama to death,'' Tomberlin said. "We are both so thrilled about the girl."

Seems most of Lake Panasoffkee is.

Life moves at a slower pace there. One of the most popular places in town is the Lake Panasoffkee Recreation Park, which is known for its horseback trails, fishing spots and other outdoor activities.

Prior to Merritt's big swings on a national stage, one of the more notable sporting achievements in the town's history happened on Lake Panasoffkee itself.

On April 14, 1985, Evan Merritt reeled in a 41-pound long-nose gar, breaking his own record for largest long-nose gar caught in the state of Florida. The record still stands.

Merritt is a realtor in Sumter County and when reached Friday, he said he was not related to Kirsti but had heard her name this week.

"We're Seminoles,'' Evan Merritt chuckled. "But I know who she is. A buddy of mine was just telling me the other day she hit a couple of homers or something."

Sumter County has produced other prominent UF athletes over the years, including former NFL receiver Ernie Mills (Dunnellon High) and Earl Everett, who starred on Florida's 2006 national title football team and made one of the most memorable plays in the championship game when he chased Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith, the Heisman Trophy winner, down for a sack after losing his helmet on the play.

Everett also came from South Sumter High, where Merritt was a standout for the Raiders the past four years.

She didn't just play softball. Merritt was on the basketball team, volleyball team, weightlifting team and track team.

When Goodwin wasn't at her job at Lake Panasoffkee Elementary, she was usually at one of Kirsti's games or watching her brother, John Kinley, work with Kirsti on her swing in their extended practice sessions.

"I loved every minute of it,'' Goodwin said Friday. "It's kind of sad and lonely not to have a practice or game every night."

Goodwin didn't attend the SEC Tournament last weekend in Lexington, Ky. Still, she couldn't keep her eyes off the TV each time Kirsti stepped to the plate.

Goodwin invited family and friends over for a viewing party. Once the last person walked through the front door, there were about 40 on hand to watch the Gators as they beat Alabama, Georgia and Missouri to win their third SEC Tournament title in program history.

Merritt went 5-for-11 in the series, including two home runs and seven RBIs. She went 3-for-4 with a career-high five RBIs in the victory over defending national champion Alabama and capped the weekend with the go-ahead two-run homer against Missouri.

"It was unbelievable and dreamlike,'' Goodwin said. "There were a lot of people cheering."

In her first season at UF, the 5-foot-4 Merritt moved to center field as Florida coach Tim Walton tried to find a replacement for All-American Michelle Moultrie, one of the best player's in school history and a personal favorite of Walton's.

She proved she was up for the job on both counts.

Merritt is hitting .305 with six home runs, 29 RBIs and 17 stolen bases in 20 attempts. She also has shown signs of performing best when the stakes are highest with 18 of her 40 hits going for extra bases.

Merritt has developed into a key part of the lineup hitting second behind leadoff hitter Kelsey Stewart as Florida heads into this weekend's Gainesville Regional at Katie Seashole Stadium.

"Nothing surprised me about Kirsti,'' Walton said. "Kirsti is very, very talented. She is athletic, she's tough, she's always got a smile on her face. It's easy to like a kid like that.

"And then when she does well, it's like you look at her, 'wow, where did she come from.' She is so unassuming she doesn't draw a lot of attention to herself. But she packs a big punch for a little person."

Stewart played with Merritt on the Wichita (Kan.) Mustangs travel team last summer. She knew Merritt was a good player, but now, each time she gets on base, she knows Merritt could drive her home with one swing.

"I was just waiting for her to bust open, and better time than ever, the postseason,'' Stewart said. "You'll never hear her talk about it. She's really humble with it. It's awesome for her and I'm so proud of her."

The unassuming Merritt prefers others to do the talking. And they did when she hopped on the team bus after the SEC Tournament and turned on her phone.

"I had like 40 text messages from all of my family,'' she said. "I've got people back from home like, 'Oh my gosh, people know you outside our little Sumter County.' It makes you feel good. I know that I have to still come out here and work as hard as I can, but it kind of keeps you going."

In her own little way, Merritt helps keep Tomberlin going.

A former physical education teacher at South Sumter High and longtime member of the school board, Tomberlin won't be at the games this weekend. She'll be back in Lake Panasoffkee following the games on the Internet or watching on TV with her husband of 62 years, Edgar.

Tomberlin recalled Friday the excitement in the community when Kelly Goodwin's South Sumter team won the state title in 1988. She has the same feeling watching Merritt and the Gators.

"I'm very interested in all of it,'' said Tomberlin, a member of Florida State's first graduating class in 1948. "Even though I'm a Seminole, I'm not a Gator Hater."

 

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