GatorZone.com Senior Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY -- House money.
That’s the term Gators softball coach Tim Walton used last week in describing to his players how they should view the pending trip to the NCAA Women’s College World Series.
“I had to explain to them what it meant,” Walton laughed.
The folks in the UAA Compliance Office will be glad to hear that.
Metaphorically speaking, though, Walton basically told his players that winning a Southeastern Conference regular season championship, the league’s postseason tournament, a sub-regional, super regional and WCWS berth had far exceeded any expectations he had for this team when they began their long trek together last August.
In other words, anything at OKC was gravy, baby.
Ultimately, the Gators were eliminated in three games, struggling mightily at the plate in their 9-2 opening-round loss to SEC rival Tennessee and again in Sunday’s 3-0 elimination bracket defeat against Texas. A combined five hits in the two games.
But in between, Florida played one of the most memorable games not only in program history, but ever staged at the WCWS. A standing-room-only crowd of nearly 10,000 at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium was riveted Saturday night as UF and Nebraska battled 15 innings -- the longest game at the series since 1994 --before the Gators made one of their signature defensive plays to end the nearly 5 1/2-hour epic and take a thrilling 9-8 victory.
That game, more specifically the fight Florida showed, will be the signature takeaway from the program’s fifth World Series berth in six years; maybe the lasting image of this season.
“It’d be hard not to be,” Walton said.
UF will miss its two departing 2013 seniors, Kelsey Horton and Ensley Gammel, a duo who for four years helped establish the Florida way for those that filed in behind them.
“I’m a little emotional right, because it’s my last softball game,” Horton said through tears after Sunday’s loss. “I’m so excited I could make it to the College World Series three times and I couldn’t have done it with a better group of girls. So I’m really happy.”
Don’t be surprised if the 2014 class of seniors are right there competing to make it to a third World Series in four years, also.
Not only is Horton the lone starter departing a team that finished 58-9, but Walton’s four-member incoming freshman class has the potential to provide an instant impact.
Joining the Gators next season will be highly touted Delanie Gourley, a left-handed pitcher who shattered California state prep records at El Capitan High School in Lakeside. She’ll add to a staff that will return All-American Hannah Rogers and Lauren Haeger to give the Gators one of the deepest and most talented in the nation.
Outfielder Justine McLean, another Californian, is a slap-hitting lefty could compete for a spot in the opening-day lineup. The class also features Chelsea Herndon, a speedy utility player from Texas, and Daytona Junior College transfer Francesca Martinez, another utility player.
It’s a group that will maintain Walton’s high standards for pitching and defense, but also should bolster the need for some added offensive punch.
Bottom line: the program is in very solid shape for next season, in great part because of what the team accomplished this past season.
Ultimately, with house money.
“Just a great group of players that worked hard,” Walton said. “I’m really proud of this team.”