It seems like forever ago when we were watching Lauren Haeger and the 2015 Florida Gators softball team raise the NCAA championship trophy up in Oklahoma City.
Well, the wait for softball is almost over as Tim Walton and his star-studded 2016 roster will take the field on Friday in Tampa, Florida.
“Looking forward to 2016,” Walton said at media day on Monday. “Excited to not only have our freshmen take the field for the first time, but also our last opening weekend for our five seniors who’ve meant so much to program with their consistent play they’ve played with.”
When the Gators take the field on Friday they’ll be without the likes of Lauren Haeger, Bailey Castro and Katie Medina, but have no fear, as Walton reloaded his roster.
The Gators welcomed the No. 1 high school player in the country in pitcher Kelly Barnhill, the No. 2 player in the country in Amanda Lorenz and five other freshmen to campus for the 2016 campaign.
These ladies have all watched from afar as the Gators captured back-to-back titles, but the time has finally come for them to don the Orange and Blue jerseys.
“These kids have been committed to us for a long time and I’m sure they’ve all run this through their head,” said Walton. “Just what a first weekend is going to be like putting on the uniform for real for the first time and getting an opportunity to get out there and play. I can certainly understand Amanda [Lorenz] and every other freshman’s excitement level to get out there and put that uniform on. There is nothing like your first time putting on that uniform or your first at bat those are things that you will remember forever.”
These freshmen enter uncharted waters with the rest of the 2016 roster, as they enter this season with a target on their back after being on top of the world for two straight years.
Incoming freshmen like Kelly Barnhill know that there are certain expectations after winning, but she believes it’s more about personal and team expectations than pressure.
“I don’t think its really any added pressure,” Barnhill said. “I think its expectations, you’re expected to have high expectations here. You’re expected to come in get your workouts done, give it your all, all the time.”
Compliancy is something that could set in with a team that has had this much success; or maybe even cockiness. Quite frankly the Gators are the team to beat once again in 2016.
Cockiness can often be mistaken for confidence, but confidence is exactly what this Florida Gators team has and the coaching staff of this softball team leads that mindset.
“You can sit here as a coach and talk about things from a confidence stand point or an ego standpoint,” said Walton. “I think that’s one thing we have proven is that we don’t have players that have egos. We don’t have a coaching staff that has egos. But when you do it once, there can be a lot of things that go your way and you get it done. When you do it twice, twice in a row, there’s nothing luck about that. There is no fluke involved in that. So I think not only the character of our players is something to be leaned upon but also just how we run our program.”
That confidence is built into this team the moment they step foot on campus from Walton and his coaching staff, but the entire team helps in that motivation.
Walton puts a big emphasis on having his team be a close knit group and that has shown in the past in the dugout when the team is going through a tough stretch, or a particular player is going through a tough stretch. The Gators dugout hardly ever lacks positive energy and that has to do with one of Walton’s biggest ingredients to winning.
“I really feel like the missing ingredient last year was just getting to be around and getting to know the people a little bit better,” Walton said. “Winning a championship the year before we were very excited, but last year we took things differently, a little bit of a different approach and I was really excited there wasn’t as much judging of of the young players. There was a lot of character building that we put in last year and we’re putting those same kinds of pieces in this year. Win or lose, if you like the people you around, if you respect the people you’re around then the outcome is just kind of a relevant or irrelevant factor. It really just doesn’t make that much of a difference.”
The Gators head coach is now a seasoned veteran at this game as he enters his 11th season in Gainesville and he certainly seems to building a batting bag full of different keys to winning.
One of those keys is how to get his team to build good team chemistry early on in the season; Walton’s key is to get his team on the road away from distractions.
“[I] love opening the season on the road just from a chemistry standpoint to give our team a chance to be around each other for the first three days of the season,” said Walton. “It’s pretty exciting to have the girls around each other all day to open the season.”
I know Florida fans are upset that they are not able to watch their team open the season at home, but the Gators are preparing a big surprise for when they do open at home next Wednesday.
That big surprise is something that Walton believes not only Florida fans, but also softball fans in general will love.
“Out in right center a new national championship billboard will be unveiled,” he said. “It will be exciting not only for our fans but for visitors that come in to see that big national championship billboard out in right center.”
Fans don’t have to feel left out that though as the current players have yet to see the billboard either but they’re excited to see it.
“I haven’t seen it yet but I’m super excited to see it,” Kelsey Stewart said. “They took our national champion pads down so were like that sucks but he said it’s really big. I’m super excited about it.”