Home away from home

As the Florida softball team celebrated its second Senior Day this weekend, Liz Paculba couldn’t help but reminisce on how it all began for her daughter, Aja.

“It came too quick,” the senior’s mother said. “It seems like just yesterday when we dropped her off here. And it’s just as sad a moment today as it was when we left her here. But it’s been great.”

Paculba was honored alongside Kelsey Bruder and Megan Bush on Sunday as one of the California girls who came to Gainesville and left their mark on a program as members of the most victorious class in Florida softball history.

Along with South Florida natives Stephanie Brombacher and Tiffany DeFelice who were honored on Saturday, the seniors notched a record of 229-28, with only 13 SEC losses in 107 conference games.

But the success could not have happened without head coach Tim Walton and the promise he made to parents like Liz and her husband, Rod, when recruiting players from all over the country.

“I can’t even explain to you,” Liz said. “It was hard for us. She’s our oldest daughter. She’s quiet. We’re going to send her 3,000 miles away. You just have to talk to the coach and he just made us feel very comfortable leaving her here.

“He said ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take on the role of being a father to her. If she’s ever in trouble, if she ever needs anything, I will be there for her.’ And he fulfilled that, and I can’t thank him more.”

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Growing up in California, the trio has played on the same fields before.

“I’ve played against Megan, I think, since 10 and under,” Bruder said. “And I’ve played with Aja since we were 9 years old to maybe 12 years old. So old friends and it’s great that we came all the way cross-country, and we’re finishing it here together now.”

Paculba’s father said the passion all three have for the game hasn’t changed since they first started playing softball.

“They were all on their separate teams and they were competitive just what they are right now,” he said. “What you see out there is what you saw when they were young.”

For Paculba and Bush, the first time they played on the same team was in Gainesville, and the duo has developed a friendship that wasn’t there before.

“They never really associated when they were younger,” Rod said, “but now that they’re roomies, it’s a beautiful thing.”

The two have been roommates all four years, and have played next to each other their whole careers as Paculba played second base while Bush played first and short.

As Aja describes it, they have grown “comfortable with each other,” and that comfort has translated into knowing what the other person is thinking at certain times on the field.

One of Aja’s favorite things about Bush is her smile and the fact it never leaves her face.

“I just like that she’s always happy and always smiling,” Aja said. “And then when she’s frustrated, she always has a smile on her face.”

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After four successful years at Florida, Bruder, Bush and Paculba were picked by different teams in the 2011 National Pro Fastpitch Senior Draft.

Bruder was the first Gator selected in the 20-player draft going fifth overall to the USSSA Pride, where she will be reunited with Walton and former Gator Francesca Enea. Bush was then picked next by the Akron Racers, and Paculba was picked 17th overall to the NPF Diamonds.

Paculba said playing against Walton for a change is going to be “interesting and fun at the same time” as she gets to work under a new coach and hassle her old one.

“Playing for coach Walton for the last four years, you kinda not get sick of it, but it’s kind of like the same thing, over and over again,” she said. “So I think playing against him is going to be fun because you could get to do the things you wouldn’t be able to do on the team right now, or say different things to him on the field.”

As for Walton, who will also coach the Pride this summer, he gave some thought to the idea when he helped Bush in batting practice before Sunday’s game.

“‘It’s gonna be hard to root against you,’” he said to Bush. “But it’s fun. It’s nice to see them want to play and continue to play.”

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Walton said this weekend has been tough as the Senior Day activities hit close to home because of their accomplishments.

“It’s rewarding because I had a hand in bringing every one of those kids in,” he said. “They laid the foundation for this program. They’re the first team to get to the College World Series so it’s a nice, nice thing.”

Having the opportunity to put a new program on the map was the selling point Walton used while recruiting players like the five seniors.

“Coach Walton promised all of us that we were going to help build this program and that’s what we were coming here to do,” Bush said. “I think we’ve fulfilled our promise to him and he has fulfilled his promise to us, so I can’t say that we’re leaving here disappointed.”

The group will have the opportunity starting Thursday to win their third SEC tournament after an early exit last season. They also have the chance to play in their fourth straight College World Series, an achievement that never happened before they came to Gainesville.

“I think we all kinda thought we were going to be successful, but I don’t think we thought coming in freshman year we were going to be as successful as we were right off the bat,” Paculba said. “Looking back at the last four years, I think that none of us can say that we would be where we’re at, but we’re happy that we’re there.”

For Paculba, Bush and Bruder, emotions were held in check Sunday as they focused on beating Tennessee and clinching their fourth-straight SEC East title.

“I think my mom was the emotional one,” Bush said. “I wasn’t really. I was happy to go hug all of the girls and just really get the game started, and get this last conference game over with so we can move onto postseason because that’s what we’re here for.”

Bruder joked at the end of Saturday’s game saying she would run through and grab all the roses from the underclassmen to avoid the hugs and the emotions. When it was all said and done, she was proud of the fact she kept it all in.

“I’m patting myself on the back for that because I was known for the past three years as hyperventilating on Senior Day,” she said. “I can’t keep it together, but it’s a little different when it happens to you.”

Despite calling the moment “pretty emotional,” Paculba was focused on Tennessee just like her roommate, but her parents were there to be emotional for her.

“The big thing is the community and the university – how they took her in as a young gal and she’s coming out as a senior now,” her father said. “For a parent, it’s gratifying that she’s actually is being taken care of from California. I think the fans and the university has taken real good care of her.”

As for seeing her honored alongside two people she has grown up with over the years, Pacubla’s father was at a loss for words as his daughter and the rest of Florida’s seniors have come a long way.

“They say it’s supposed to be a happy time,” he said. “It’s a touchy time. It is sad that it’s getting close to the end.”

Gator Country reporter Safid Deen can be reached at Safid@GatorCountry.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at SafidDeenGC.