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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Eight players get homecoming with games in California

UF is going back to Cali, Cali, Cali.

After a 14-game homestand, the Gators - who have eight players from California on their roster - will do their best LL Cool J impressions and head to the West Coast for the second straight year.

However, the Wednesday showdown at Long Beach State (6-5) will mark the first time that four of the players will get a chance to play in their home state as college athletes.

Freshmen Kelsey Bruder, Aja Paculba, Kristine Priebe and Megan Bush all chose to play softball approximately 3,000 miles away from where they grew up. Another freshman from California, Shaunice Harris, is out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

"We know Florida has been an up-and-coming team," Bruder said, explaining why she thought many of the players chose to make the move to the other coast. "The coaching is amazing. The school is amazing. A lot of us just wanted a change, I guess."

Now ranked No. 5 in the nation, UF (19-0) is no longer that program on the rise that can sneak up on teams.

A big reason for the Gators' consistent early-season dominance is the triumvirate of Californians who have already experienced a West Coast swing.

All-American Stacey Nelson earned her second-straight Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Week honors after going 5-0 with a 0.70 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 30 innings pitched.

Center fielder Kim Waleszonia, also an All-American, raised her average to .327 over the weekend and is 10 for 10 in stolen base attempts on the season.

And cleanup hitter Francesca Enea leads the team in average (.372), home runs (5), RBIs (18) and slugging percentage (.767).

All three said they are most looking forward to seeing their families, who will get a rare chance to see them play in person.

Another chance came in 2007 when UF played a tournament in Los Angeles.

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Despite a 3-2 win against Long Beach, the Gators returned to Gainesville disappointed after losing three of five games they played that weekend.

"It was kind of a turning point in our season last year when we went to California and played probably some of our worst softball of the season," UF coach Tim Walton said.

Though the players are excited to return home and spend time with their families, Walton made it clear that he will not allow them to mix business with pleasure.

"I just lean heavily upon three of my leaders and told them that this is a business trip," he said. "We're going to have some fun. We're going to do our thing, but ultimately we're out here to play ball.

"If anybody, or any one person or any one family is becoming distracting, I'm going to have to put my foot down and make sure they understand this is what we do. This is what I do for a living, and we don't want you to get in the way of their kid's successes."

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