GatorZone.com Senior Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The outcome had been decided, but Florida coach Tim Walton had the bigger picture in mind.
Tennessee was crushing Florida 9-2 in their opening-round game Thursday at the NCAA Women’s College World Series. The Volunteers were threatening to pad the biggest deficit the Gators had faced all season when Walton called timeout to make a pitching change with two down in the seventh.
In came Alyssa Bache to replace Lauren Haeger, clearly tired after spinning 140 pitches over 6 1/3 innings after Walton had to yank ace Hannah Rogers just six batters into the game.
As Haeger made her way to the dugout, Walton called her back to the circle. Then he waved in his infielders -- two freshmen, a sophomore, a junior, plus a freshmen reserve catcher -- to huddle up as Bache got loose.
Walton used the timeout as a teaching moment.
“In the future, we’re going to be back here,” Walton told them. “I want to make sure you guys understand that you have to continue to get better. You can’t get down on yourselves or keep looking at the scoreboard. And I expect you to play with a different level of intensity than what you’re playing with right now. You have to be better than this.”
Without question, the Gators will be back here in the future and the message Walton delivered to that core group of young players will be one they’ll remember maybe next year, maybe the year after that.
Or maybe Saturday.
The Gators (57-8) will be back at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium at least one more time this season, what with a morning elimination date against Nebraska (45-15) on the CWS slate. Florida has dug itself a hole, sure, but for a team that started the tournament with the No. 2 overall seed it’s only an insurmountable one if the Gators play as poorly as did against the Vols.
“No where to go but up, right?” Haeger said.
During Friday’s off day, Walton didn’t spend a bunch of time reliving Thursday’s game, but he certainly didn’t ignore what turned out to be -- going away, mind you -- his team’s worse game of the season.
“We were prepared,” he said. “We just didn’t play very well at all.”
Against the Vols, the Gators were pounded for 11 hits, committed two errors and managed just four hits of their own while leaving nine runners on base.
But Walton was in good spirits Friday after a solid afternoon practice, before which he met with his players for about 30 minutes and talked about what went on between the lines the day before.
What he saw just wasn’t acceptable.
“If anybody just thinks this is about one game, it’s not,” Walton said. “This is about the program and constantly getting better and doing things the right way. And, again, saying I was disappointed with how we played softball yesterday would be an understatement.”
How they respond will a different kind of statement.
It’s worth noting, UF hasn’t lost two games in a row this season.
“And we don’t plan on doing it now, either,” Haeger said.
Rogers will get another chance in the circle. She’s a first-team All-American for a reason. You can bet she has a lot of pride too and didn’t take well to be pulled after just 26 pitches on college softball’s biggest stage.
But she’s also not going to take it personally.
“I let Coach Walton make those decisions,” she said.
Like the one to roll her back out against the Cornhuskers, who lost in extra innings to Washington on a walk-off homer, but got here by beating third-ranked Oregon in their Super Regional matchup.
If the Gators' track record this season says anything it’s that they know how to respond after a setback, and that what went on against Tennessee was more an aberration than the norm.
Walton was right. The Gators are coming back here.
This time, with a purpose.
“We’re going to come out and play like we have all year and play the type of softball that’s carried this team this season,” Haeger said. “We have nothing to lose now.”