Gators vs. Baylor in softball opener

The number one ranked Florida Gators softball team will open its season Friday against Baylor (6 p.m., Katie Seashole Pressley Stadium), the first of a three-game set with the Bears of the Big 12 Conference. The Gators will face Baylor at 1 p.m. Saturday and at noon on Sunday.

By Brad Goldbach

The Gators begin the season with the number one ranking in both softball polls after winning an NCAA-record 70 games in 2008 and finishing third in College World Series. Baylor finished a disappointing 24-22 last year just one season after making their first trip to the College World Series. Florida Coach Tim Walton expects the Bears to be ready to atone for last season.

“It is humbling to face a quality, quality, quality opponent,” Walton said Tuesday. “They are going to be a fast, very aggressive, offensive base-running team, somebody who gets out and just gets after it. They’re very hard to defend against, a triple threat type team: bunt, slap, hit, hit for some power, and they will be very well coached.”

Walton hopes scheduling a tough opponent right out of the gates will prepare the Gators for the rest of the season and ensure they don’t begin the year with a false sense of security.

“It’s going to be tough,” said Walton. “The speed of the game is going to be the biggest difference for us right away. It’s going to be getting into the speed of playing an outside opponent. If our defense is solid we will win. We knew this was going to be a very challenging opening to one of the toughest schedules in the country, so we’re hoping to build on last season’s success.”

Florida’s schedule includes games against eight teams ranked in the preseason Top 25 poll, including a February 19 showdown with NCAA champion Arizona State at the Cathedral City Classic in Palm Springs, CA.

Starting the season number one means the Gators are a target for every team they face. To emphasize how the Gators are no longer the hunters but the hunted, Walton has placed an actual target on the back of every player’s practice jersey as a motivational ploy to prepare them for the pressure of the season.

“Every coach looks for some type of way to get the kids fired up and I wanted them to see that target every day and to understand that we have been playing with a target on the front of our shirt for a long time, being at Florida… and now we’ve added the extra bonus of not only having the Florida on the front but having the number one ranking above us,” Walton said. “Come out and give me your best shot every day at practice because everyone is going to give you their best shot every game.”

Florida should be well-equipped to take each team’s best shot after only losing only Mary Ratliff to graduation from last year’s squad. This year’s team features seven seniors, including preseason All-Americans Stacey Nelson (P), Ali Gardiner (1B) and Kim Waleszonia (CF). Junior Francesca Enea (LF) and sophomore Aja Paculba (2B) also made the preseason All-American team.

“I’m excited about having the experience, but a large (senior) class also worries a coach that you don’t get too satisfied, that you don’t get too complacent,” Walton said.

Even though the team is loaded with senior talent, Walton feels the lack of leadership is the team’s biggest weakness right now. It is an issue he has addressed in the locker room, but thinks the leaders will step up once the games are played.

“We’ve worked on it, we’ve talked about it and now you just got to play ball and see what happens,” Walton said. “Sometimes a team leads, sometimes they talk about leading and sometimes they just play. They play and don’t lose and never get into any kind of adversity, and it really doesn’t matter. So I think it’s just going to come down to playing ballgames.”