The objective was 45 wins. Florida’s softball team now has 46, but why stop there?
“I think we exceeded expectations,” UF coach Tim Walton said this week after practice. “I don’t mean it as a negative toward our team, but every coach wants a team of overachievers. We had a goal. We’ve surpassed that goal. Now we have to move on and adjust those goals. Hosting an (NCAA) regional is a new goal. Now we have to work hard game one, game two, how ever many we get the opportunity to play. Right now one thing we’ve talked about is not overlooking anybody. We can’t look at the College World Series or the super regionals. Stetson is all we’re worried about.”
Florida (46-20) will host the Hatters (44-20) at 6 tonight in the three-day, double-elimination affair. Others in the four-team field are Georgia Tech (53-14) and Texas (33-18). The two winners play Saturday while the two losers face off in an elimination game.
This is the third consecutive season the Gators have hosted an NCAA regional, but they are 0-4 over the last two years with losses to North Carolina (1-0), Florida Atlantic (1-0), Bethune-Cookman (3-2) and UCF (5-3).
The Gators’ hopes of reversing history rest with sophomore pitcher Stacey Nelson, who has emerged as one of the Southeastern Conferences’s most dominant starters. So far this season, the Californian has struck out 254 against 67 walks with a 0.94 earned run average. Her 30 wins tied a school record set by Chelsey Sakizzie in 1997, ‘98.
“For me to say she hasn’t overachieved would be a stretch,” Walton said. “She works so hard, I think she can attain anything. That’s one thing she can do. She works tremendously hard. She had an OK fall, and I think that that came from fatigue in the summer. The first weekend (of the season) she lit up the stage and was she was unbelievable beating Arizona and Oregon. That told me that, wow, that this team was on a different path than the teams before.”
As a freshman, Nelson (14-12, 2.11 ERA) showed promise; as a sophomore, she has fulfilled her potential.
“Physically, I feel pretty similar,” Nelson said. “Mentally, I feel a year older. (After) a second year in the SEC I feel (mentally) stronger and more sound.”
The pinnacle of her season came last week against Tennessee, when she tossed a three-hitter and stuck out six, as the Gators toppled the top-ranked Volunteers 1-0 in the SEC tournament semifinals. A day later, in its first SEC championship appearance, UF lost to LSU (1-0), but a smidge of postseason momentum had been generated.
“We lost the next game, so it’s hard to measure, but looking at the kids’ faces, when they scored a run, they knew we were going to win, they were confident, they knew what they had to do to win,” Walton said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, what are we going to do if they get a runner on base.’ (Tennessee) got a runner on second with one out in the seventh, but they stepped up and made plays. Overall, it’s a good win for our program. What we do with that is yet to be determined.”
After nearly 70 games, roles have been defined. Team harmony appears strong.
“We don’t have as many players as we had,” Walton said. “Depth can create competition, but it can also sometimes create animosity. I think we’re going through this season with the least drama you could probably imagine. Everyone gets along. I watch… I pay close attention to this team on the road. There isn’t one person that sits with the same person every meal. They move around. They sit… The comfort is with the team rather than individuals. That said, there isn’t one person that feels like they’re better than anyone else. We don’t have a superstar.”
The collective objective is simple: More offense. Only two UF starters _ Kim Waleszonia (.368, 27 RBI) and Melissa Zick (.317, 37 RBI) _ bat higher than .300. Florida’s collective team batting average sits at .257.
“We have to hit better,” Walton said. “As good as Stacey is, we’ve got to get more runners on base and get those runners in. If you look at our season as a whole, we hit about .220 over the first 30 games. Over the last 30-something games, we’re hitting about .290, so we’re on track to do that. But in postseason, you can’t put pressure on yourself; you’ve got to find a way to get it done.”