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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Father's baseball career leads Gardiner to softball

Like father, like daughter.

At least that's how the saying goes for UF junior first baseman Ali Gardiner.

Gardiner's father, Wally, pitched for the Gators from 1970-73 and has had a big influence on her career.

"When I was little, he was the main reason I started playing the sport," said Gardiner, who also played volleyball and basketball at John Jay High School in Cross River, N.Y.

Gardiner said it was her dad's baseball background - he played in the Chicago White Sox system after college - that helped prepare her for playing Division I softball.

Wally warned her that it would be tough and that there would be times when she would want to quit, but he assured her that in the end it would all be worth it.

Learning a strong work ethic helped prepare Gardiner for the years of time-consuming practice that were ahead of her.

"My pitching coach was an hour and a half away in Connecticut, and my hitting coach, who I still work with, was a half-hour away, so it was a lot of driving," she said.

In addition to receiving instruction on all parts of her game, Gardiner took travel ball to a whole new meaning.

"I played on a travel team out of Virginia, so every weekend, my dad and I would drive five-and-a-half hours to D.C. and back."

Gardiner, who will lead No. 7 UF against Hofstra on Wednesday, said the Virginia team, which she played on with a friend from New York, was a nationally competitive team - a far cry from the girls' athletics programs near her hometown.

Where Gardiner was from, girls weren't even thinking about playing college sports until the end of their high school careers, which she said was far too late to actually succeed.

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"In eighth grade, I knew I wanted to play softball in college," she said.

In her first year out of high school, Gardiner achieved her goal when she signed to play softball with North Carolina-Wilmington.

"When I went to college, I wanted to be able to play first, hit and pitch," she said.

But after her freshman season, Gardiner, who admitted she wasn't good enough to pitch at UF, decided that she was more than willing to sacrifice pitching - just like she sacrificed hours of driving - in order to come to a university where she could play a higher level of competition and win more games.

So she packed her things and headed south to play for the Gators.

"I always had Florida at the back of my mind," she said. "I told my coach at Wilmington if they didn't want me I would come back, so it was Florida (not transferring)."

In her second season in Gainesville, there is no doubt that Gardiner is plenty good enough to hit for the Gators.

The left-handed slugger is hitting .469 with a .585 on-base percentage.

Gardiner has followed up a team-leading 40-RBI performance a year ago by again leading the Gators in RBI this year.

UF will look to Gardiner to continue her consistent offensive production as they take on Hofstra at Pressly Stadium Wednesday.

And each time she comes to the plate she'll try to follow one simple piece of advice that her dad has always told her.

"See the ball. Hit the ball."

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