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Shortstop Katie Medina, left, and first baseman Taylor Schwarz are key components of Florida's superior defense.

Friday May 23, 2014Super in the Field: Gators' Identity Starts with Defense

Shortstop Katie Medina, left, and first baseman Taylor Schwarz are key components of Florida's superior defense.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Sometimes, assistant softball coach Kenny Gajewski likes to see just how creative he can get.

And just how acrobatic some of the Florida players can be.

Kelsey at practice At the behest of Coach Tim Walton, the Gators devote 20-25 minutes of their practice working on defensive fundamentals. The more rudimentary -- such as simple roller drills, without a bat in sight -- the more important.

"Repetition, repetition," Walton said. "Everyday."

“Basic stuff,” sophomore catcher Aubree Munro said. “Watch the ball in. Backhands. Forehands. Barehands. Things like that. It’s all the stuff we’ve been doing since we were like 8 years old, but it’s the stuff that wins you games.”

But Gajewski (below right), in his second season as assistant, tends to get a little creative during this time. He’ll take the infielders and outfielders over to a fence and make them lean over, balance on and sometimes even topple over it to make a catch. He’ll roll a few wide, to the left and right, and see if they can glove the ball or at least knock it down. Then he might air-mail a few -- way up high -- and watch them get vertical for a play.

“I like to push them. It’s fun for me, but they seem to like it too,” Gajewski said. “I actually find myself maybe doing it a little more than we probably need to because I’ve become such a fan of watching them and seeing what they can do. This is a special group.”

The highlights say as much.

Kenny GajewskiIt could be Kelsey Stewart (at practice above) making a circus stop deep in the hole at second base. Or center fielder Kirsti Merritt racing down a drive to the warning track and robbing a batter of a home run. Or shortstop Katie Medina gunning a runner out with bang-bang play at first. Or Taylor Schwarz, the first baseman who went the entire Southeastern Conference season and postseason (23 games) without committing an error, making that key stretch from the bag. Or Munro picking off runners attempting to steal, like she did without fail in last weekend's NCAA regional play.

Yes, the Gators have one of the finest defenses in all of college softball.

The statistics say as much, also.

No. 6 Florida (48-11) heads into this weekend’s NCAA Super Regional series -- with a berth in next week’s Women’s College World Series at Oklahoma City on the line -- against No. 8 Washington (36-13) ranked in a tie for first in the nation in fielding percentage at .979. The Gators, seeded fifth overall in the tournament, in order to advance will need to post those kind of numbers against the 12-seed Huskies and an offense that is one of the most explosive in the land, ranking 10th in batting average (.328) and 16th in runs per game (6.47).

UF is 3-9 all-time against UW, including four straight losses. Two of them came in the Huskies’ sweep of the Gators in the 2009 WCWS championship round. Washington is an annually battle-tested bunch, with 10 straight Super Regional appearances and four WCWS trips.

The Huskies will be a handful.

So the Gators need to be ready with a gloveful.

“If we do what we’ve been doing, and keep them off the bases as much as possible, it’ll help us a ton,” said Medina, the junior shortstop with the rocket arm. “But we know they’re going to get some runners on, so that means we’re going to need to make some of those great plays.”

The crowds at Pressly Stadium are used to seeing plays that bring “oohs” and “ahhs,” but Walton has a different theory on such plays.

"When you make those great plays enough, they become routine plays," he said. "That's what I'm after."

Practice them enough, and simulate enough scenarios that make defenders exert themselves, the so-called web gems have a better chance to become the norm. Again, that’s Walton’s goal.

That’s why no less than eight players on the UF roster were shortstops on their way to becoming Gators. Think about it. Stockpile a bunch of All-America shortstop prospects -- who likely were the best athletes on their high school or club teams -- and disperse them among the infield and outfield, that’s going to make for a pretty athletic defense.

LittleThere’s Stewart at second. Stephanie Tofft at third. Briana Little (pictured right) in left field. Merritt in center. Also, utility player Taylore Fuller, backup outfielder Jess Damico and even Hannah Rogers, one the finest defensive pitchers in the country. They were all shortstops in previous softball lives.

So those shortstop traits -- including the instincts that lend themselves to the position -- are scattered all over the field. One of those traits is usually a diamond-rat mentality of someone who just loves the game.

Take Medina. She grew up as a softball and tennis standout in Downey, Calif. Her father always wanted to take her to the batting cages, but those trips usually came with a stop at the field first at young Katie's request. 

“Hit me some grounders, Dad,” she’d say.

Most of these Gators are wired that way.

“Fans want to see big hits and home runs and lots of numbers on the scoreboard, but people tend to overlook defense and that’s something this team puts a lot of time and effort into,” Schwarz said. “We pay attention to the little things, the fundamentals. Because of that, when we’re on our A-game out there -- playing our best defense, with our pitching on point -- that’s usually when we’re at our best on offense, too. One feeds off the other.”

Said Merritt: "It sounds crazy, but we spend so much time on our defense that we want to be perfect."

Walton, who has guided UF to seven Super regionals in the last eight years, is as detail-oriented as they come. He has poured over more video of Washington in the last week than any opponent the Gators have faced this season.

As good as the UF defense has been in 2014 -- only three teams in the country committed fewer errors than UF’s 34 and two of those teams played fewer games -- the unit, like any team, needs input from the coaches. Walton, based on his thorough scouting report, will have a detailed “spray chart” of Washington’s hitters and their tendencies to serve as a baseline.

Double play After that, it's up to the players. Usually, the Gators are up to the challenge.

This will be one of their biggest yet.

“It’s pretty simple. You have to score at least one run to win a game, and our goal is to give up none,” said Medina (pictured left turning a double play), a career .218 hitter who has nonetheless started 154 of her 173 games because her glove at short is so invaluable. “If it came down to the end of a game, I’d rather it come down to defense than offense. I love to play defense. We all do.”

Better yet, they love to work on it. Daily. Even this late in the season.

Then again, when will defense ever be more important than this weekend?

Actually, the Gators hope that question comes up next weekend ... in Oklahoma City.


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