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Florida softball coach Tim Walton speaks to the crowd at Wednesday's welcome-home celebration.

Wednesday June 4, 2014Walton Gets an Altogether Different Championship Feeling

Florida softball coach Tim Walton speaks to the crowd at Wednesday's welcome-home celebration.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

PHOTO GALLERY

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As he exited Will Rogers World Airport for the walk to the chartered flight home Wednesday, the hot Oklahoma sun splashed down on Tim Walton while he crossed the tarmac. The Florida softball coach had made the stroll before.

But not like this.

“This is a great walk to an airplane, right here,” Walton said. “The best walk ever.”

That from a guy who won an NCAA title as a baseball player and softball assistant at Oklahoma. Now he's experienced the euphoria of winning it all as the head softball coach at UF after the Gators defeated Southeastern Conference rival Alabama 6-3 to sweep the Women’s College World Series championship round and capture the first national championship in school history.

Dog pileThe guy knows dog piles.

“As a player, it’s the best because you can really celebrate what you’ve done with your teammates. As an assistant, it's more a relief that you got it done,” Walton explained. “But as a head coach, you get to enjoy it with everybody in the program and share it with your family and friends.”

That’s what Walton did late into the night back in Oklahoma City, and again when the team bused from Gainesville Regional Airport straight to Pressly Stadium for a pep rally that commemorated one of the great postseason runs in Florida sports history.

As video highlights beamed on the scoreboard in centerfield, more 1,500 fans roared their approval.

“This wasn’t just Florida’s team, this was America’s team,” declared UF president Bernie Machen. “This university aspires to be in the Top 10. When we get there, we’ll have a softball team that’s already there.”

Right at the very top. 

The Gators finished the 2014 season by going 10-1 in NCAA Tournament play, dominating their opponents along the way by a whopping 81-10 margin. They capped it with a perfect 5-0 mark at the WCWS, where the team had come up short in its five previous trips, including a pair of sweeps from the championship round.

This team, Walton said, showed up for offseason workouts last fall and declared its goal for raising the big trophy at the end of the year.

Few would have figured it possible, given a midseason slide of six losses in seven games -- two ugly ones to Alabama, in fact -- but postseasons are about coming together as group, making plays and who happens to get hot.

This time, it was Florida's turn.

“There was a time in my life I never thought I would be a national champion, and I'm sure all these girls feel the same way,” said junior Lauren Haeger, who started the decisive Game 2 against the Crimson Tide. “It warms my heart to know that all of our hard work paid off.”

At the forefront of the run was senior pitcher Hannah Rogers, the WCWS Most Valuable Player, who went 4-0 with a 1.00 ERA in Oklahoma City, and 7-0 with a 0.64 ERA against NCAA foes.

“I’m just so excited to be a part of this team and so proud just to play with all these great girls,” Rogers said.

A lot of pitchers have gone on more thorough rampages at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium over the years, but Walton could not recall a team sweeping its way through the tournament field without striking out of bunch of batters. Though Rogers allowed a mere four runs in 28 innings at the World Series, she only fanned 13 batters. That  means she was putting the ball exactly where she wanted it, but also that a lot of great things were going on behind her.

“She was great,” Walton said. “And she got a ton of help.”

Kelsey Florida's defense turned a WCWS-record seven double-plays (including four in the finals) and made a handful of jaw-dropping web gems that were deflating rally killers for the opposition. Take a bow centerfielder Kirsti Merritt, third baseman Stephanie Tofft, shortstop Kathlyn Medina, second baseman Kelsey Stewart (right) and Rogers, too; just a handful of UF players who made magnificent plays in the field.

Offensively, the Gators performed at another level than the rest of the eight-team WCWS field. UF hit .331, nearly 60 points better than semifinalist Baylor and 91 more than Alabama’s .240 average. Bailey Castro hit .556. Stewart hit .471. Merritt, who hit .281 during the regular season, went .429 in the series, with seven runs scored, two homers and five RBI. Tofft hit .357 with six RBI, including a big homer in the first inning Tuesday against the Tide and All-American ace Jaclyn Traina, who was the 2014 SEC Pitcher of the Year and 2012 WCWS MVP.

Get this: UF hit .390 with two outs in the WCWS.

“We never give up until the inning is over,” Stewart said.

That starts with Walton, who nine years ago came to UF after three seasons at Wichita State. Walton had built a nice program with the Shockers, but he coveted at chance to coach in one of the power conferences, be it the Pac-12, Big 12 or SEC. In his time at WSU, he pursued a couple SEC jobs.

One school interviewed him and passed. The other didn’t even return his phone calls.

In 2006, UF athletic director Jeremy Foley gave Walton an audience.

“I think the [description] I used in my cover letter was my ‘driving personality.’ I understood the pressure it takes to be a coach at Florida,” Walton said. “A lot of people can’t take that pressure. I felt I could.”

Foley figured as much, knowing Walton was the pitcher of record in OU’s 13-5 victory over Georgia Tech in the 1994 NCAA championship baseball game.

“I liked the fact he'd stood on the mound in Omaha. He had the ball,” Foley said during Wednesday’s ceremony. “He’s a winner. He’d been in some very pressure-filled situations and I thought he had a little something to him. Well, he had a lot of something to him.”

Bats in cirles Add a WCWS championship ring to the profile.

Next year, Walton will try to get another one. And he’ll have the means.

Rogers and Tofft were the lone seniors on the roster, so those are two big voids to fill. Rogers will leave with 127 career victories, the most among active pitchers through the ’14 season, Tofft, who transferred to UF from Northern Illinois two years ago, hit .343 in her two seasons and was a defensive anchor at third.

The players returning will be a year older, a year deeper into Walton’s system and a year better. The strides some of the players made over the season’s home stretch, especially at the plate, came via some mechanical adjustments under Walton’s guidance. He’ll stick with those tweaks. He'll find some more.

With Rogers absent in the circle next year for the first time since the 2011 season, much more will be asked from both Lauren Haeger and especially Delanie Gourley, the mini-lefty freshman with the sicko change-up who threw two pressure-packed scoreless/hitless innings against the Tide.

UF also has a six-player freshman class set to arrive, led by pitcher and all-purpose player Aleshia Ocasio (St. Cloud, Fla.), plus infielder Nicole DeWitt (Garden Grow, Calif.) and first baseman/catcher Janell Wheaton (San Dimas, Calif.).

Up next for Walton and his staff is recruiting, which means some outstanding exposure on the heels of the program’s pinnacle moment. 

“We’ll have a good message for the younger kids we are recruiting and for the ones who are signed to come here and play next year,” Walton said. “They have their work cut out for them this summer to not only get themselves mentally ready to compete, but also to come in here and defend a title.”

Basking in the aftermath of a national championship can make for some richly satisfying days.

For now, Walton will enjoy walking the walk.

The best ever.

 

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