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Gators softball coach Tim Walton's team is off to a 22-0 start.

Thursday March 6, 2014A Lot to Like About No. 1 Gators

Gators softball coach Tim Walton's team is off to a 22-0 start.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When you’re No. 1, you’re going to get the opponent’s best shot. Every game. That’s why the Florida coach practices his players so hard, prepares them so efficiently and makes every game about matching the intensity they’re certain to encounter from the other team.

You’ve probably heard this a lot lately, right.  

Except this isn’t about Billy Donovan.

We’re talking UF softball coach Tim Walton.

“It’s just been a good way to coach this year,” Walton said. “We’re really just preparing to play our style of softball every day and be the best we can be every single day.”

Through 22 games, suffice to say Walton has a pretty good pulse on his team, which happens to be 22-0 after beating Boston College 7-3 Tuesday to complete its pre-Southeastern Conference schedule. Now the deal gets real when the top-ranked Gators open the SEC slate Friday night with a three-game home series against Ole Miss (14-7) at Katie Seashole Pressly Softball Stadium.

Once again, the SEC is expected to be an aluminum bat back-alley fight of what figures to be the best and deepest conference in the country. The Gators may be No. 1, but to get there they had to overtake league rival Tennessee, which opened the season atop the polls after a runner-up finish at the Women’s College World Series last year.

Florida has been terrific thus far; similar to the 24-1 start the team enjoyed in 2013 en route to winning the SEC. That squad surprised the college softball world. This one has not.

The Gators, though, have impressed Walton with their ability to manufacture runs on offense (8.2 runs per game and a .333 team average), their consistency on defense (only 11 errors) and wickedly efficient production from the pitching staff (1.17 ERA, 6.6 strikeouts per game compared to 1.6 walks).

“I think they’re some strong similarities to a year ago,” he said.

This time last year, Walton was both pleased and fairly confident that he had a really good team -- probably a better one than he thought -- but also was looking forward to the rigors of the SEC grind to further gauge just how good the Gators were.

He doesn’t need that sort of affirmation this year.

He needs them to keep working, keep focused.

“I’m so competitive and my players know that. It’s not a secret,” Walton said. “But I’ve taken a little bit of a different approach with this team. As much as I want them to be perfect in all phases of the game, I realize the strengths and weaknesses, the pros and cons, and I really haven’t been sweating some of the things that in other years would have driven me crazy.”

He provided an example: A UF runner is on first base and the opposing pitcher throws an obvious change-up that bounces halfway between the mound and home plate. Walton expects his players to have the instinct and IQ to see that play develop -- to know it’s a change-up; know it’s going 25 feet, rather than 43 -- and be on the way to second base as the ball is bouncing toward home.

But not all softball players are wound like that.

That’s the case with this team and Walton is fine with it. More so than in previous years.  

“For the most part, they’re doing 95 percent of the things that I really, really want them to do,” Walton said. “They practice so hard, and I just haven’t been wearing them out with the things they’re doing wrong. Instead, we go back to work.”

Been a good formula, thus far.

With six of eight positions players back from a team that won 58 games last season, along with two of the best pitchers in school history, including All-American Hannah Rogers, the Gators fortified their returning core with two of the best freshmen in the nation. Left-handed pitcher Delanie Gourley (7-0, 1.63 ERA, 50 strikeouts, 11 walks) and outfielder Justine McLean (.391, 18 runs, 7 stolen bases) have not disappointed.

But now comes the SEC season, starting with Mississippi. While they’re not in the class of Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Texas A&M, Missouri, Georgia and LSU -- all of which are ranked in the Top 25 -- the Rebels have won 10 of 11 and will be looking to take a big swing at the nation’s No. 1 team.

Like everybody else after that.

“I’ve told some of my teams before, ‘Hey, we’re getting ready to play an inferior opponent, so you need to go hammer them!’ When you do that, they better be really, really inferior,” Walton said. “But I’ve prepared this team to get swept by Ole Miss and that’s exactly why they’re working so hard.”

Let the SEC paddle-wheel begin.

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