The Florida Gators softball team will forever go down in the history books for becoming only the third team to win back-to-back National Championships in the sport of softball.
This was no easy task for the Gators’ softball team. Not only did the ladies have the target of “defending National Champions” on their back and a No. 1 ranking to defend most of the season, but they were also trying to replace their former ace Hannah Rogers.
Heading into the season people called me crazy when I said that this team had a chance to be better than last year’s team, but this was a team that I knew had a chance to be special when you looked at the roster.
This was a roster that returned all but one position player — Stephanie Toft who graduated last year — and returned All-Americans Lauren Haeger and Kelsey Stewart, who won National Player of the Year and SEC Player of the Year this year.
When I said that this team would be better than last year, I never thought it would be as good in the circle, though, because, let’s face, it Hannah Rogers was dominant in the postseason last year and Haeger was lacking big game experience. Backing up Haeger was a freshman in Aleshia Ocasio, who nobody knew anything about, and then there was left hander Delanie Gourley, who many thought was just another arm in the circle who benefited from Rogers.
Good thing I didn’t bet money against them because Haeger, Ocasio and Gourley combined to have a 1.65 ERA and Ocasio was named an All-American performer for her 18-3 record on the season.
The one thing that I was sure of this season was offense, because not only was Stewart returning, but so were the dominating power bats of Bailey Castro and Haeger and, well, they didn’t disappoint us this year.
With her great year, Haeger has now become only the second player on the diamond to win 70 games and hit 70 home runs as she joins the great bambino, Babe Ruth, in that category. I think we would all like to be mentioned in the same category as the great Yankee.
Those three players were hitting machines this year but we can’t forget the freshman Nicole DeWitt, who started off her year with a walk-off three run home run against Michigan, that was waved off due to an illegal substitution. She responded with a big year in the two-hole for this Gators team that included a home run in the World Series.
A theme this year was also how many times the smiling Kirsti Merritt would be hit by a pitch. The answer was 34 times, which is good enough to set the Florida Gators single season record. Good thing for Florida fans is that Merritt never stopped smiling and it didn’t affect her great ability of playing centerfield at a top-notch level. Merritt’s glove and arm were an asset to Florida this season and it culminated with her throwing out two would be runs at the plate against Auburn in the World Series semifinal.
Speaking of defense, you can’t forget to mention the Gators phenomenal catcher, Aubree Munro, who runners are simply afraid to run against when she’s behind the plate.
The Gators might not be holding the trophy if it wasn’t for grand slam queen Taylore Fuller, who now has eight grand slams in her career. Or what if Kayli Kvistad and her six big home runs this year would’ve decided to go elsewhere. Kvistad has been a huge surprise for Florida this year as the freshman has taken over the responsibilities of playing first base.
I could talk about each player all day long as they truly have been a pleasure to watch this year and several big memories flow through my mind like senior Jess Damico, who scored the winning run on her senior day. Or when Haeger broke the SEC home run record previously held by Megan Bush, but I would bore you guys to death.
So I’ll just cap everything off by saying that Tim Walton and his coaching staff did a heck of a job to keep these girls focused and while he used odd things like lunch pails and clocking in to do it, they worked and the Gators brought home the National Championship.
Florida isn’t going away anytime soon because Walton has built this program into a powerhouse and he will just reload, but we must say our final good byes to the six seniors.
Gator Country thanks seniors Katie Medina, Lauren Haeger, Bailey Castro, Briana Little, Fransesca Martinez and Jessica Damico for allowing us to follow your careers so closely.
Until next year. Gator Fans.