After the Florida softball team advanced to its fourth straight Women’s College World Series, head coach Tim Walton got choked up when he was asked about the impact junior Michelle Moultrie has on the team.
“You can’t… Can’t assess,” Walton said before reaching for his water bottle, taking a sip, and shrugging his shoulders trying to keep his emotions in.
After wiping his eyes, taking another sip and bottling his feelings, Walton then answered the question during the next inquiry.
“Michelle means so much. My gut was that she’s going to be good and she’s better than anybody could ever expect.”
Moultrie’s speed on the base paths and defense in center field has provided the Gators with a strong foundation in the leadoff spot and in one of the most important positions on the field.
But her tremendous play didn’t come easy.
“That’s why I get so emotional about Michelle is because the kid could barely catch a cold her freshman year,” Walton said. “She’s come so far and she’s got so much talent. I just can’t believe that one individual could be that good in such a short period of time. It’s unbelievable.”
Walton said his emotions came out of respect for the center fielder as he’s seen her grow from a “just-ok” player, to what he called a “game changer.”
“If you could take 5 more Michelles, we’d never lose,” he said. “Probably one more Michelle, we’d never lose. She’s just really, really special and not just a special player, but a special person.”
Moultrie came to UF from Mandarin High School in Jacksonville. She attended a softball camp held by Walton and earned a chance to try out for the team. As a walk-on her freshman her, Moultrie batted .261 with an on-base percentage of .281, slugging .374.
During her sophomore and junior campaigns, the improvements have shown throughout Moultrie’s stat sheet.
Her batting average shot up to .389 last season, and sits at .431 this season. Her on-base percentage jumped to .447 and is now .510. And her slugging percentage rose to .541 and now 42 points higher.
The center fielder said despite having a different experience making the team unlike some of her recruited teammates, she’s thankful and appreciative of everything that has happened, including her relationship with Walton.
“We have a great relationship. He has a great relationship with everybody but I appreciate him and just everything he’s done for me, even as a walk-on. I’ve always appreciated him since the beginning, so we have a great relationship.”
But as Walton said before, you can’t assess the impact she’s had on the team.
“You can’t even measure how much she means to our program, what she’s done for where we’re at, and hopefully for where we’re going,” he said.
As the Gators look to bring home their first national title in their fourth consecutive attempt, it will be up to Moultrie to continue what she’s been doing all year long – dropping the base-hit bunt, stealing bases, and scoring when the big bats come through at the plate – in order for them to win.
Florida (52-10, 21-7 SEC) will play Missouri (52-8, 13-2 Big XII) in the last game on opening day of the WCWS at 9:30 p.m., on Thursday.
Led by pitcher Chelsea Thomas, who posts the nation’s best ERA at 0.83, the Tigers are making their third straight appearance in the WCWS after a two-game sweep over Washington in the Super Regional.
Walton called Thomas “a phenomenal pitcher” and said his team will have to stick to its game plan at the plate to get past her and the Tigers.
“My goal with these guys is to understand our game plan going against Missouri is a marathon, it’s not a sprint,” he said. “Just because you have one bad swing, doesn’t mean a game full of bad swings.”
Left fielder Kelsey Bruder, who was among the many Gators to watch Missouri clinch over Washington, said Thomas does have her work cut out for her going up against the Florida lineup, which ranks 10th in the nation with a .326 batting average.
“I don’t think she’s faced an offense like the Gator offense,” the SEC Player of the Year said. “We’re so solid 1-9 and she’s going to have her work cut out for her but for us as well, we need to go in and have the right game plan against her.”
Both teams have met before on this stage last season, when Florida ended Missouri’s season in a 5-0 victory. Two home runs from Brittany Schutte and one from Bruder sealed the game for Florida while Stephanie Brombacher allowed just six hits and struck out six in the shutout.
In their last two appearances at the WCWS, the Tigers have lost all four of its games.
As for beating Missouri two years in a row, Walton said winning on Thursday is not going to come down to the teams being nervous about playing on the big stage.
“I think it’s going to come down to the better team,” he said. “The team that gets the clutch hit, the team that executes its pitches is going to win.”
Gator Country reporter Safid Deen can be reached at Safid@GatorCountry.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SafidDeenGC.