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Sophomore Kelsey Stewart has played a big role in Florida advancing to WCWS.

Wednesday May 28, 2014Wichita Woman: Stewart Feels at Home at WCWS

Sophomore Kelsey Stewart has played a big role in Florida advancing to WCWS.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Of all the sports she played while growing up, there was one that had elements of intrigue and excitement that made Kelsey Stewart gravitate its way more than others. On a lengthy list that included gymnastics, basketball, soccer, volleyball, track and field, the one she liked best was softball.

For Stewart, the fascination wasn’t when bat met ball and launched a game-winning hit. It wasn’t the exhilaration that followed a sprawling web gem, either. The winning? Yeah, that was fun, but rarely did Stewart play anything she didn’t win.

Kelsey No, something else fueled her.

“The failure,” Stewart said Wednesday. “The fact you could fail, maybe even fail again, and still get another chance to beat them, that’s what I loved the most. I seriously fell in love with the failure.”

So she chose the sport where stars are made of those who fail seven of 10 times at the plate. Stewart, though, doesn’t fail at that rate. Florida’s sophomore second baseman, lead-off hitter and newly crowned first-team All-American will lead the sixth-ranked Gators (50-12) into Thursday’s Women’s College World Series opener against 17th-ranked Baylor (47-14) batting .435, with 55 RBI and 34 stolen bases.

Not only does she love the failure, Stewart craves the chance to excel in the face of it.

“She puts pressure on the defense when she’s at bat and puts even more on when she gets on base,” UF coach Tim Walton said of his table-setter. “Realistically, as she goes, we go. The energy Kelsey Stewart provides is priceless. She powers us. She drives us.”

Stewart's three-run homer in Sunday’s 8-0 win over Washington in the decisive Game 3 Super Regional helped power the Gators to the WCWS. Because of it, her family will lead a caravan of about three dozen on the short trip from Wichita, Kan. -- just two hours north on Interstate-35 from ASA Hall of Fame Stadium -- to watch their daughter, sister and Gator home girl lead UF’s latest run for a national championship.

What a fun drive that’ll be.

For years, Stewart used her inner drive for competition to speed her ascension to excellence. The daughter of a former junior college basketball player (father Chris) and high school cheerleader (mother Lori), Stewart was a natural athlete who not only loved to play, but had a work ethic to match.

* The natural part: It was only a few years ago, eighth grade in fact, that Chris Stewart took his family four-wheeling in nearby Arkansas City, Kan., when they came upon a gathering of deer in a distant field. Out of the vehicle climbed Kelsey, who crept close enough to the animals to make a mad dash their way. “The deer started running and Kelsey ran right with them to start, and I swear if she had put her hand out she could have touched one,” her father said. “That’s when I really realized how fast she was.” Astounding as that sounds, Chris Stewart swears that’s how he remembers it.

* The work ethic part: At Wichita Maize High, the boys and girls basketball teams had to share the gymnasium; they alternated practicing early, then late. Sometimes Stewart would get home from hoops and immediately summon her father to the garage to take some cuts off the tee. “It would be 9:30 or 10 o’clock,” recalled Lori Stewart, “and Kelsey’s like, ‘C’mon Dad, gotta take some swings.’ And they’d be out there an hour.”

In time, Stewart blossomed into the No. 2 softball prospect in the nation. That didn’t surprise Walton, who got his first look at Stewart when she was -- get this -- a 14-year-old playing for an Under-18 club team.

“She was really good with the bat, but it’s what she did on the bases that sticks out in my mind. She was just crazy fast,” Walton said. “Every time you looked up, she was running second to third, or rounding third and coming home.”

Kelsey the cheerleader Stewart’s been running the bases ever since. Though she was a terrific volleyball and basketball player at Maize, she opted to bypass those sports her senior year to save herself for softball. Not that she sat still, mind you. Stewart went out for the cheerleading team (that's her on the left).

Even her parents teased her about that.

“The Kelsey we’d known had never been a girly-girl,” her mom said.

She took the ribbing like a trooper, but when her basketball friends mocked her by saying, “Kelsey, do a cheer for me,” Stewart always had the trump card.

“Stop!” she’d say. “I can still beat you in basketball."

And they knew it.

Worth noting: Stewart was named All-American by the United Cheerleaders Associations in 2011. 

About the same time, she chose Florida softball over Alabama.

Kelsey swinging “I didn’t think being so far away would be that hard, but the day my parents dropped me off I cried,” Stewart said. “Coach Walton and the girls made the transition really easy for me. Once I got settled in I really loved it and loved my teammates. The only difficult part was not being able to see my dad and talk to him about hitting and fielding ... but we did some FaceTime calls.”

They must’ve helped. Through two seasons, Stewart’s .405 average is the highest in program history for anyone with at least 200 at-bats and she is the only Gators player to steal at least 30 bases in more than one season.

And now she’s in her second straight WCWS.

Last year, a Florida team that won the Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament titles came here and was eliminated in three games, finishing in an overall tie for fourth. Stewart went just 4-for-15 in the series for a .266 average.

No doubt, she considered that a failure.

But that’s why Stewart loves softball. She gets another chance. On the biggest softball stage of all.

Right down the road from home, no less.

“I used to come to the World Series every year when I was little, but now I’m one of those players who all the little girls are watching. That’s surreal,” Stewart said. “It’s an unbelievable experience and it’s hard to explain, but I’m so excited and thankful for the ride."

 

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