By Brad Goldbach
Florida’s second ranked softball team (19-2) is going to have to find ways to compensate for the loss of All-American center fielder Kim Waleszonia, who suffered a tibial plateau fracture against Texas Tech Sunday in the Cox Invitational. Waleszonia will likely miss the remainder of Florida’s regular season but she should recover in time for the Southeastern Conference Tournament on May 7 and the NCAA regionals on May 14.
Waleszonia was injured in a collison at first base when she was trying to beat out a bunt. The injury is on the upper portion of the shin bone and just below the knee. If there is such a thing as good news from the injury it is that there was no torn ACL.
Florida coach Tim Walton second-guessed himself after Waleszonia went down but had to admit there wasn’t anything that could have done to prevent it.
“When you injure one of your best players, you have second thoughts or second guesses about ‘Gosh, what could we have done to avoid that?’” Walton said.
Finding a replacement for Waleszonia means Walton will have to go to a bench that is long on talent but a bit short on experience. It’s difficult to sit an All-American like Waleszonia even though you have deserving players on the bench. During Florida’s run to the College World Series last year, Walton had players like Alicia Sisco, Brooke Johnson and Lauren Heil ready to play but there weren’t many opportunities.
“The way our team performed at the World Series, they earned my utmost respect,” Walton said. “When you earn that at the highest level of competition, it makes it very difficult to put other players in their positions throughout the season no matter who you’re playing. So it’s really hard to give other players opportunities when you have that kind of respect and that kind of confidence in those kind of players.”
Going into this weekend’s SEC opening series at South Carolina (12-2) and down the road through the rest of the SEC schedule, Walton has to find which of his reserves can do the best job to replace Waleszonia not only at the plate, where she is a dangerous hitter, but in the field, where she is one of the best defensive center fielders in the country.
When the Gators take on the Gamecocks for a Saturday doubleheader (starts 1 p.m.) freshman Michelle Moultrie will get the start in center field. Moultrie is hitting .304 with six stolen bases so far this season. She will hit second in the lineup behind leadoff hitter Aja Paculba.
“I think [Moultrie] will probably be the best suited for that given her athleticism and her ability on the bases and what she’s done offensively so far,” Walton said. “I really like Michelle, and what she’s been able to do both offensively and defensively for us. I think she’s going to be the piece. Where we put her is going to be determined still.”
Brooke Johnson is also a candidate in Walton’s eyes to play center field, as the senior’s experience will help the team late in games. Johnson has not started this year and hasn’t recorded a hit in her three at-bats, but she has made 18 appearances, both as a pinch runner and fielder.
Sophomore Kelsey Bruder batted in the number two slot in Sunday’s games against Illinois and South Florida, responding with a 1-7 performance and her third home run of the weekend. But that home run power makes her a more likely candidate to go back to batting fifth in the order, an important spot for protecting Francesca Enea, the team’s home run leader, in the lineup. Bruder batted fifth in the lineup three out of the four games last weekend before taking over for Waleszonia on Sunday. Walton has also used Tiffany DeFelice and Corrie Brooks in that spot this season.
“I still need someone to provide me protection for Francesca,” Walton said. “[Bruder] has provided that home run power, that home run threat. Whether she struck out two times before or not, she’s still going to potentially hit the next ball out of the ballpark, just like Mary (Ratliff) did last year.”
One assurance Walton does have is the reliable one-two pitching punch of Stacey Nelson, 9-2 with a 0.39 ERA, and Stephanie Brombacher, 10-0 with a 0.95 ERA. Brombacher struggled a little bit early in the Cox Invitational, but seemed to regain her stuff in Sunday’s game against South Florida. Walton is confident it had nothing to do with her mechanics and has gotten her groove back.
“It was 100 percent mental,” Walton said. “It was more or less, given the circumstances or situation of the game, that she was trying to be too perfect and she walked a couple of batters. Stephanie doesn’t walk batters, so it was definitely more of a mental approach. You see she got it right back again against South Florida.”
Walton plans to pitch Nelson twice and Brombacher once in the three-game series against the Gamecocks. He also indicated that it might be possible to use both pitchers in relief over the weekend.
The news wasn’t all bad for the Gators this week. Nelson was named the SEC’s pitcher of the week, after another dominating string of performances. Nelson went 4-0 with two shutouts and a save. She also recorded a season-high 12 strikeouts against South Florida on Friday.
Joining Nelson on the awards list was Enea, who was named SEC Player of the Week for the second time this season. Enea went 12-22 on the week for a .545 average. She hit two home runs and drove in seven.
Now that the SEC schedule is about to begin, the Gators will have to find a way to pull together. The league is one of the toughest in the nation and the Gators will need to find someone to step up to replace Waleszonia. Fortunately, Walton has options and he’s very confident that his reserves will step up.