When freshman Ensley Gammel arrived at Katie Seashole Pressly Softball Stadium Sunday, she showed up dressed for the occasion. It was one of Florida’s biggest games of the season — Louisiana State — with first place in the Southeastern Conference on the line.
But Gammel wasn’t suited up to take on the Tigers. Instead, she entered wearing bunny ears on her head to the tune of her teammates’ laughter.
“I just thought, ‘I’ll lighten it up a little bit today,’” Gammel said. “So I just put ‘em on for fun.”
Gammel’s loose approach to the game is a far cry from the adjustment period she went through in the beginning of the season, when she was still getting used to the college game. In those first appearances, Gammel said she was nervous throughout the whole game for fear of messing up. Now the nerves only last from the start of the game until she releases that first pitch. Then it’s smooth sailing from there.
“I’ve learned to just kind of let loose and have fun with the game,” said Gammel, a standout right-hander from Centennial High School in Bakersfield, Calif. “You can be nervous until the first pitch, but then it’s gotta go away.”
But before the game? She doesn’t even give herself time to get worried about the game. It helps when you have bunny ears to loosen the whole squad up.
“I try not to worry about games before,” Gammel said. “When it’s game time, it’s game time. Then I worry and get my job done. But before … life’s too short. Have fun.”
Gammel will bring her new-found confidence and loose approach to fourth-ranked Florida’s visit to Arkansas to take on the Razorbacks. The Gators (27-4, 9-2 SEC East) and Razorbacks (24-13, 8-3 SEC) will play a doubleheader Saturday beginning at 2 p.m. The series finale will be played Sunday at 2 p.m.
Of course, no one can question her lighthearted approach in the hours before game time as Gammel (7-0, 2.32 ERA) came in to pitch four innings and only give up one unearned run. The appearance capped off a week in which she surrendered no earned runs in 15 innings of work, picking up three wins along the way.
Gammel’s breakout week caught the eye of people around the nation as she picked up SEC Pitcher of the Week and USA Softball National Player of the Week honors. Gammel became the first Florida freshman to win each of the awards and the fourth Florida player to win the national award.
But the player who didn’t hesitate to don rabbit ears sheepishly tried to deflect any praise directed at her for winning the awards.
“Oh man,” Gammel said. “I didn’t even know. I didn’t even know what that stuff was. It’s an honor, but I couldn’t have done it without my team. It’s because of them I got these awards. Plain and simple. I couldn’t have done it by myself.”
One thing Gammel has not shied away from stepping into the No. 2 role on the pitching staff from day one. It may have taken her a little time to settle into that role, but she said she never felt any pressure trying to take it on. All she knew was that she just had to get the job done. It’s the kind on mentality that has infected the Florida program, an infection that has spawned success.
“Recruiting players into this program, I think they know that they have that expectation that’s going to be put on them,” pitching coach Jennifer Rocha said. “I think for Ensley it’s been a slow process for her to really take that role by the horns and embrace it.”
But as junior Stephanie Brombacher knows from her own experiences of stepping into the No. 2 role from the get-go, you don’t really know how to deal with the role and the game until you get out there and do it. Eventually it becomes a trial by fire, as experience becomes the teacher.
“They don’t teach you how to do it,” Brombacher said. “You go out and throw your way out there. They expect you to just absorb it. Most of the time it works. Sometimes there’s a little slip-up. It’s kind of that you just learn as you go. They can teach in practice, but they can’t put you in those types of situations in practice. You can mock it all you want, but nothing’s like the real games.”
With the rigorous schedule Florida plays, a few games under your belt and the speed of the game begins to slow down. Rocha said that moment when Gammel turned the corner may have come in the team’s trip to California, where the team began to see “a really small glimpse” of what Gammel was capable of doing. On the West Coast, Gammel threw two complete games, giving up three runs in the opener to Pacific and one run in the finale to Loyola Marymount.
From there, Gammel continued to progress in bullpen sessions, and she truly had her breakout moment a few weeks later in Rocha’s eyes. Facing a deadly Crimson Tide squad, Gammel gave up four runs, two earned, in a game-two start before settling down and shutting down the opposition for the next two innings. In the rubber match, Gammel came in and surrendered the game-tying home run in the sixth, but instead of losing confidence as many young players would do, she brought the fire. Gammel retired the next two batters and induced a game-ending double play the next inning.
“Alabama is when she really came out and stepped up,” Rocha said. “We just saw a different person and a fierce competitor that we want to be out there on the mound every single day and that the team wants to be behind.”
Gammel faced her trial-by-fire in Tuscaloosa and returned with her first hard-earned victory. Most importantly, she had fully grasped confidence and understanding in herself and her ability to pitch.
“She knows that she has talent,” Rocha said. “She knows that she has pitching savvy to be a good pitcher. For her, it’s just competing against herself and being able to pitch easy. We talked about pitching easy and not making it so hard. She’s so competitive. She’s a perfectionist. She wants everything to be good every single day, every single time. It was just a matter of her taking it one pitch at a time. Very cliché, but it means a lot for her to take one pitch at a time.”
While Gammel’s meteoric rise is certainly impressive, what may be more impressive is that she has been equally as successful with the bat in her hands of late.
According to head coach Tim Walton, Gammel is best baserunner on the team, one who sees balls in the dirt better than anyone. Gammel scored the tying run in the top of the seventh in a victory over UCF last Wednesday. Then for an encore, she went 1-for-1 and scored the game-tying run in game two of the LSU series, capping it off with an emotional fist-pump and congratulatory point to junior Kelsey Bruder, who batted her home.
Both runs set the stage for game-winning home runs.
Gammel ended the week with her best showing at the plate, going 2-for-2 with her first career RBI in the finale. She is now 4-for-6 on the season.
“She has a little bit of an edge,” Rocha said. “Being a hitter, she knows what the hitters are thinking. For her, I think it helps her sometimes on the mound, knowing what the hitter might be thinking and maybe she can outsmart them a little bit.”
It has taken a new approach from the coaches as well, having to split time between Gammel’s bullpen and batting cage times, all while making sure she steadily improves in both areas.
“Usually I’ve been able to be selfish with my time in the bullpen with the pitchers,” Rocha said. “We’ve tried to relate a lot of things between pitching and hitting, as far as having a good mental approach and being prepared for the batter you’re facing and being prepared for the pitcher you’re facing.
“It’s a different game for her at this level too, trying to share time in the bullpen and in the cages. It’s a challenge, but it’s something that we feel very comfortable with now. I’m OK with sharing her in the batting cages if she’s going to keep producing like she does.”
It’s all part of Gammel’s steady progression in her first year at Florida. There may be some more bumps in the road, as there are with all freshmen, and even players in general, but Gammel has shown she has the fortitude to keep battling and keep improving.
“She’s still a freshman, so she still has a lot of growing to do, which is a good thing,” Rocha said. “Every week I think there’s going to be something different. Each opponent brings a different challenge. She has to be able to maintain her confidence and her pitches. That’s the biggest challenge — for her to come to the field prepared every day mentally. Physically she has the right tools to do well and to be a good pitcher. For her, it’s just being mentally prepared and believing in herself. I know it may embarrass her a little bit that she has all these great awards that few people get. It’s a belief. It’s a confidence. Hopefully we can see it grow in her.”
What the Gators see growing is another special pitcher before their very eyes.
Arkansas Notes: Florida has won the last six meetings. … Arkansas has undergone a complete turnaround under first-year head coach Mike Larabee, who took Wright State to the NCAA Tournament in 2007 and 2008. … Arkansas went 27-29 overall and 10-16 in the SEC last season. … Arkansas took the first two games from Georgia last weekend by scores of 3-2 and 10-5 before dropping the series finale 4-0. … Senior Jessica Bachkora leads the team in batting average (.395), home runs (13), doubles (12) and slugging (.824). … Senior Sandra Smith leads the team in RBI (38) to go along with eight home runs, while senior Miranda Smith has 10 home runs and 29 RBI. … Arkansas has a team ERA of 2.98, led by freshman Hope McLemore (12-5, 2.20 ERA). … The Razorbacks are receiving votes in both polls
East Division Conference Overall
(Rnk) Team W-L Pct. W-L Pct.
(4) Florida 9-2 .818 27-4 .871
(17) Tennessee 10-3 .769 29-7 .806
(15) Georgia 6-6 .500 27-8 .771
Kentucky 7-9 .438 22-15 .594
South Carolina 0-16 .000 10-27 .270
West Division Conference Overall
(Rnk) Team W-L Pct. W-L Pct.
(14) Louisiana State8-3 .727 29-7 .806
Arkansas 8-3 .727 24-13 .649
(6) Alabama 10-4 .714 27-9 .750
Mississippi 5-7 .417 21-15 .583
Auburn 5-9 .357 20-15 .571
Mississippi State 3-9 .250 22-18 .550
(Rnk) USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll
SATURDAY, April 10
South Carolina at Kentucky (2), 1 p.m.
Florida at Arkansas (2), 2 p.m.
Tennessee at Auburn (2), 2 p.m.
Georgia at Mississippi (2), 2 p.m.
Mississippi State at Louisiana State (2), 2 p.m.
Northwestern at Alabama, 2 p.m.
SUNDAY, April 11
Florida at Arkansas, 2 p.m.
Tennessee at Auburn, 2 p.m.
Georgia at Mississippi, 2 p.m.
South Carolina at Kentucky, 2 p.m. (ESPNU)
Mississippi State at Louisiana State, 2 p.m.
Northwestern at Alabama, 2 p.m.
April 6, 2010
USA TODAY/NATIONAL FASTPITCH COACHES ASSOCIATION
1. Washington (30-3); 2. Michigan (26-5); 3. Arizona (30-4); 4. Florida (27-4); 5. UCLA (27-6); 6. Alabama (27-9); 7. Missouri (25-6); 8. Stanford (27-5); 9. Arizona State (32-6); 10. Georgia Tech (32-5); 11. Oklahoma (29-8); 12. Oklahoma State (32-7); 13. California (29-8); 14. Louisiana State (29-7); 15. Georgia (26-8); 16. Texas (31-8); 17. Tennessee (29-7); 18. Illinois (26-4); 19. Florida State (33-7); 20. Ohio State (21-10); 21. Texas A&M (30-9); 22. Massachusetts (21-7); 23. Louisville (24-12); 24. Notre Dame (26-6); 25. Hawaii (28-11).
ESPN.com/USA SOFTBALL DIVISION I
1. Washington (30-3); 2. Arizona (30-4); 3. Michigan (26-5); 4. UCLA (27-6); 5. Florida (27-4); 6. Geirgua Tech (32-5); 7. Alabama (27-9); 8. Missouri (25-6); 9. Stanford (27-5); 10. Arizona (32-6); 11. Oklahoma State (32-7); 12. Georgia (26-8); 13. Oklahoma (29-8); 14. Louisiana State (29-7); 15. California (29-8); 16. Florida State (33-7); 17. Texas (31-8); 18. Tennessee (29-7); 19. Illinois (26-4); 20. Texas A&M (30-9); 21. Oregon (26-5); 22. Ohio State (21-10); 23. Baylor (19-10); 24. North Carolina (27-13); 25. Massachusetts (21-7).