Wednesday May 29, 2013On the Same Page: Gators Coaching Staff Has Traveled the Same - and Long - Path Together
OKLAHOMA CITY -- As his Florida team was set to take the field in the sixth inning of Sunday's NCAA Super Regional clincher against UAB, Tim Walton began making his way out of the dugout. Time for a defensive substitution.
The UF coach turned to assistant Kenny Gajewski to bark some instructions. No need. Gajewski already was calling for the switch before the words left Walton's mouth.
"I got it," Gajewski said.
But Walton told him anyway.
"I think I just needed to say it out loud," Walton laughed.
These sensory-like moments are not uncommon on the UF staff. Far from it, actually.
"Sometimes, I'll see something and look to Tim," pitching coach Jennifer Rocha said. "That's when he'll look at me, like, 'Yeah, I know.' "
Clearly, Florida's softball coaches are on the same page.
Maybe because they've traveled virtually the same path.
Walton and Gajewski grew up in Southern California, attended junior college there and went on to play baseball at the University of Oklahoma in the 1990s, winning a national championship. Rocha grew up in SoCal, played a year of JC there before transferring to -- guess where? -- Oklahoma and starring there, too. She won a NCAA title as a graduate assistant; on the same staff with Walton, and with Gajewski, who was there at the time in charge of managing softball facilities.
Now they're back in the Sooner State. Together. Side by side.
At the Women's College World Series.
"They just mesh together so well," senior Ensley Gammel said. "And we all mesh with them."
Rare do coaching staffs have such built-in, "homie" ties, but that's the case with this one.
"The three of them are literally BFFs," sophomore slugger Lauren Haeger said.
As coaches, they spend hours upon hours with each other at work, but Walton, Rocha and Gajewski (pronounced "GUY-eh-ski," but who goes by "Coach G" with his players) share a tight relationship away from the field as well. All are within four years of age (Walton is 40, Rocha 37 and Gajewski 41), Walton and Gajewski with children about the same age.
Gajewski's children call Walton "Uncle Tim."
Indeed, it's like a family affair.
Walton and Gajewski first met in August '90 when Walton showed up as a freshman at Cerritos. They grew close instantly, both on the same pitching staff, eventually going to OU and pitching there. The 1994 Sooners defeated Georgia Tech (armed with Nomar Garciapara and Jason Varitek) in the CWS.
A 25th-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Phillies, Walton toyed in the minors for a few years before getting a call in from Gajewski, then running groundskeeping operations at OU. The Sooners softball coach there was looking for someone with baseball background -- general knowledge of the game played on the diamond -- to join her staff.
The notion appealed to Walton.
"Sometimes doing things differently than you're used to can not only validate what you're doing, and potentially take you to another level," he said. "Sometimes, there are things you know about the game, thought about the game, that other people just haven't. That's a good thing."
Walton also was knee-deep in OU baseball. Soon, he was part of the Sooners softball lore as well, as OU defeated UCLA in 2000 for the NCAA championship. Rocha was part of that title too, as a grad assistant.
In 2003, Walton was hired as head coach at Wichita State and immediately tabbed Rocha, then an assistant at Oregon, as his pitching coach.
The two have been inseparable in the 11 years since. And on the same telepathic wave length.
"So much of our communication is non-verbal," she said. "When I'm calling a pitch, he just knows what it's going to be ... and he's already setting the defense."
Walton and Rocha had a good thing going, rolling to the CWS for four straight years (2008-11) when an opening came available on the staff last year.
Gajewski, in his first year of director of baseball operations at Tennessee, got a call from Walton. He wanted to get the band back together, so to speak.
For Gajewski, it felt right immediately, but he had to do some research. He called Walton's wife to pick her brain. What would it be like having him around all the time? Then he called Rocha to have some real talk about how having her boss's best friend parachute in would impact the UF operation.
"They already had an elite, top-five program," Gajewski said. "I didn't want to rock the boat."
Mrs. Walton's response: "You guys will be great."
Rocha's response: "Yeah, let's do it."
This year, they've done it all the way to OKC.
Graduate assistant Kelsey Bruder was a star outfielder on the four Gators teams that came her before. She's seen how this team of coaches has forged together to lead this team of highly motivated, overachieving players.
Come to think of it, those were the very traits that Walton, Rocha and Gajewski leaned on as players.
"There's so much history between them, and so much respect and mutual love for each other, and it shows in their work," Bruder said. "You watch them in action, during a game, and it's just a well-oiled machine."
Both Rocha and Gajewski have seen a change in Walton, too. His relentless attention to detail remains (and isn't going anywhere, ever), but there's a trust factor with his fellow longtime Sooners. He knows things are going to get done and they're going to get done exactly how he wants them.
"Nothing falls through the cracks," Rocha said.
"They keep me thinking constantly about how we can get better -- which is what I'm constantly thinking about anyway, so it's perfect," Walton said. "That's how I've been doing it my whole coaching career. How do we get an edge?"
Turns out, Walton found the answer in a pair of familiar faces.