This one was for everybody.
The first one always is.
For Each Other
Seldom have we seen a team more close-knit, more fun-loving and more dedicated to playing for each other. The theory of being forged as blood siblings by extreme hardship was certainly put to the test with this team and proven to be true. After having the team ripped with turmoil at the beginning of the post-season two years ago, this team pulled together, relied on each other and fought for each other like it is written in story books. The team chemistry, camaraderie and just pure love for each other and for the game practically jumped off the field and through the television screens across the country as the postseason unfolded. And it was the glue and the undercurrent that swept them to another level in the postseason, all the way to the title series. Seldom have we seen such togetherness. Seldom have we seen such a dominating post-season performance in any sport. And seldom have we seen a more deserving group of student athletes bring it all home.
For Those Who Went Before
This win was for the 2009 team that was one of the most dominant teams in any sport, any year, but had the misfortune of running into Olympian, two-time national Player of the Year and super-dominator Danielle Lawrie when she was on an unhittable hot streak. For Stacey Nelson, the greatest pitcher in Florida history. For Ali Gardiner, who framed the greatest moment in program history before Monday night – the walk-off grand slam to defeat Alabama and propel them to their first ever WCWS title series. For Francesca Enea and Corrie Brooks.
This win was for the 2011 team that made Florida’s second trip to the title series, only to suffer the same fate as the 2009 team: catching an elite pitcher on the best unhittable streak of her college career. For Kelsey Bruder, Megan Bush, Tiffany DeFelice, Michelle Moultrie, Aja Paculba and for Brittany Schutte whose career was cut short by injury and of course for Stephanie Brombacher, holder of multiple school records and who was right behind Stacey Nelson in program elite when she graduated. It was her nagging injury that was one of the decisive factors in falling in the title series, as well as forcing Hannah Rogers into early service under fire.
This was for the 2012 team that entered the NCAA tournament with a legitimate shot at winning the program’s first national title, but had to play through the dismissal of three starting players just as the postseason began. The team fought hard but suffered its only year not making the WCWS since 2007. This was for the 2013 team that rose like a phoenix to return to the big dance despite having to replace 30% of the starting lineup, two and three years earlier than planned.
For All the Rest of the Gators
This win was for the entire athletics program. Because this was a first for the sport in Gainesville. The Gators are running out of sports that don’t have national title hardware in the trophy case. This was the 33rd national title for the overall athletics program, but more importantly, it was the 13th different Gator sport to claim a national crown. Only eight sports remain without this distinction. It also pulled the Gator women out front of the Gator men, as the seventh women’s sport with a title, compared to six for the men. Remarkably, their 17th natty also moved the women one total title ahead of the men, who have 16 combined.
But far more than just balancing and enriching the school totals, this title moved the Gators into a two-title lead in the race for sports program of the decade in the sports in which they compete. The overall program has won ten national titles, which is two better than second place Alabama. Oregon and UCLA have seven apiece. In the women’s column, the title pulled the Lady Gators – with five on the decade – just one behind UCLA and Oregon. With three sports having national champions left to be crowned, the Gators have a legitimate shot at winning the crown in two of them.
For the Most Special Gator of All
I know I said this title was for everyone, but it really was for more than everyone. This special game to end this special season was for someone very, very special.
By now we’ve all heard her name. Heather Braswell, the brave teenaged warrior who beat back an aggressive brain tumor to beat cancer. In the final fall game of 2009, the Gator softball team presented her with an official Gator softball jersey and adopted her as an official member of the team through the Friends of Jaclyn organization. Then-senior Francesca Enea learned of the organization and its mission, talked to the ball club about Heather and the rest is history. She threw out the first pitch and the team dedicated their season to her as Team Heather.
The warrior beat the dreaded disease once only to have a second tumor emerge five and a half years later and ultimately take her precious life. As the television crews astutely pointed out during the broadcasts, the Team Heather banner was prominently displayed in the Gator dugout throughout the postseason and the team wore yellow ribbons in their hair in honor of their fallen teammate. Heather had the best seat in the house to watch her Gators win that elusive first national title that they have been chasing since Heather joined the team. Every Gator on the field made the gesture in victory: Heather, this one’s for you!
This Tournament Takes Time
It’s doubtful anyone remembers, but after the extremely painful loss in the 2009 championship series to the Washington Huskies, I mentioned in my post-game column that Gator fans should take heart and have patience. Maybe…a lot of patience. Because traditionally it takes a long time to win the WCWS once a school gets there. The 2009 Series was only Florida’s second trip to Hall of Fame Stadium, having just reached for the first time the year before. Washington earned their first every title in the sport with their win over the Gators, and it took them nine tries. Niiiiine tries, Mrs. Bueller. Arizona State won their first title the year before, and it took them seven trips to the Series to finally bring home the trophy. Two years prior it was Michigan’s turn to win it all, and it happened on their eighth trip to Oklahoma City. In 2002, California won their first title on their seventh attempt to crack the WCWS code. A couple years later, Alabama continued the trend, taking home their first crown: it took them eight swings at the plate to clear the fences.
There are some exceptions to the rule, of course. Oklahoma won on their first try in 2000. Then it took them eight more trips to the Series to notch their second title. Many teams are still knocking at the door. Oklahoma State and Missouri have gone six times each without a title. Nebraska is 0-for-8. So are the sad sacks in Tallahassee, though they still have a long way to go to match their baseball counterparts in men’s CWS futility.
So for Florida to take home the crown on just their second trip to the big dance was a long shot, even though they were the best team in the nation and one of the best ever. When they reached the title series against long standing WCWS elites Arizona State, it was just their fourth trip, so it was still a stretch. This year it was the Gators’ sixth attempt to conquer the Series, which was still early to expect a championship in historical perspective, but it turned out to be just enough.
The Gators will have to earn another national title for fans to start talking about a dynasty but the program is as primed as any other in the nation to make a run at that distinction. In the seven years since Florida’s first trip to OKC, only one team has won more than one championship. That would be Arizona State, the last time in 2011. Gator fans will remember that one. But over that time, Florida has been to the WCWS more than any school in the nation, going six of the seven years. Arizona State and Alabama are right behind with five, followed by Oklahoma with four. All of those teams now have a national title to their credit over the last seven years.
And as the future unfolds, Florida will be as well prepared for the best competition in the nation as any club, because the SEC has recently become the premier conference in the sport. In addition to placing four teams in the title series in the last three years, winning the crown twice, the SEC has two of the top three teams, and four of the top eight in terms of visits to the WCWS over the last seven years. Joining UF and Alabama in that group are Tennessee and Missouri. Georgia has also been to two series over that span, with Kentucky, Texas A&M and LSU all going once. In total, SEC teams have made 22 visits to the WCWS the last seven years, 30% more than the PAC-12 – the previous dominant conference in the sport. No other conference made more than eight visits to the series.
And the very young Gator team returns all but two regular starters next year after putting on one of the most dominating postseason performances in any sport, any year. The Gators will be back again next year, and again and again. All the pieces are there to make a run at a dynasty.
That’s usually what happens when you build a program the right way and then turn in a season for the ages.