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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

She wakes up every day having finally arrived, but it wasn't always this way.

She comes to the ballpark knowing there's a place in the lineup card where her number, name and position will be penciled in.

No. 23. Mary Ratliff. RF.

For two long years, she was unsure if she would ever get to fulfill the role on the team she always thought would be hers.

An injury, position change and coaching switch later, she earned the right to start for the UF softball team.

And in this, her final season as a Gator, the lone battle-tested senior leader is primed to leave her mark on the program - the program that she has given everything she has, both in and out of the batter's box.

Just One of the Guys

Ratliff grew up in the small town of Mount Sterling, Ky.

It was in that little rural town of just less than 6,000 that Ratliff learned to play a number of sports, but her passion for one in particular stood out above the rest.

"I grew up playing baseball. It was baseball, baseball, baseball," she said.

Ratliff thought she was going to be a baseball lifer, and her older brother, former UF swimmer Will Ratliff, saw no reason not to believe her.

"Not only was she a girl playing baseball, but she was a hardcore tomboy," he said. "She even looked like a boy. She had her hair cut really short, and sometimes she was mistaken for a boy."

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Ratliff was considered one of the guys, so much so that Will and his friends affectionately gave her the nickname "Gary" when addressing her.

"She was the poster child for tomboy-ness," Will said.

Ratliff's neighbor, Bart Rison, was the Montgomery County High softball coach, and it wasn't until he urged her to come out for the high school varsity team that she reluctantly gave the sport a shot.

Once Ratliff hit sixth grade, she started to grow her hair out and attempted to pick up softball - shedding her one-of-the-guys image.

"Originally I said, 'No, I don't want to play softball. Girls who play softball are stupid,'" she said.

After her first year on the varsity team - barely removed from elementary school - Ratliff developed a passion that made her forget all about baseball.

As she transitioned into high school, it was softball and the Bluegrass State's favorite sport that dominated her life.

"I'm from Kentucky, and basketball is the king of Kentucky," she said.

She starred on the varsity basketball team all four years in high school, leading the team in assists each season.

"There was a long time when I thought basketball was going to be my sport."

Orange and Bluegrass

Yet after her sophomore year in high school, Ratliff made the decision that softball, the sport she was so weary of, would be her ticket to playing college sports.

"I'm really glad I made the switch," she admitted.

Ratliff went on to earn the 2004 3A Kentucky High School Athletics Association and Kentucky Prep Softball player of the year awards in her senior season at Montgomery.

While her high school career was coming to a close, playing competitive softball was far from over.

Ratliff had been good enough in high school to warrant opportunities to play at major universities throughout the south, but in the end, there was really only one school that made sense to her.

"The big selling point was my brother Will," she said.

Will is three years older than Mary, and together they are the second and third of the four Ratliff children.

Will said he didn't have to say much to Ratliff to convince her to become a Gator.

She had taken visits to the school with her parents and saw how much fun Will was having.

"She got to be good friends with a lot of the people that I was good friends with," said Will, who is now attending dental school at Kentucky.

So Ratliff chose UF over schools such as South Carolina and Auburn to play softball at the next level.

Underwhelming Undergrad

Gainesville was a change of pace for the small-town girl.

"Gainesville to me is big city," she said. "My town, I think in the city limits, we have five- or six-thousand people that live there. So I tell them all the time, Gainesville is big city."

Despite the contrast in scenery, she adapted well to her new off-the-field environment, but it wasn't long until she suffered her first setback on the diamond.

"The first month of school I was messing around in the outfield, and I dove for a ball during batting practice," she said. "I broke my middle finger in eight places, and I had to get a metal plate and some screws put in."

Ratliff described an average day during the next couple of months as showing up at practice, shagging some balls in the outfield and then heading to rehab, which she attended about three times a week, for an hour or two.


That's the one word Ratliff used to describe the frustrating process of coming back from a debilitating injury.

She was cleared to play by doctors on opening day of her freshman year, but playing was not something she did much of during the next two seasons.

She hit .225 in 71 at-bats during the course of 53 games in her freshman and sophomore years combined, appearing almost exclusively in substitute and designated hitting opportunities.

"I think when you come in, everybody expects to play everyday," she said.

For evidence of her lack of playing time, look no further than her fielding percentage her first two seasons as a Gator - .000.

To take that percentage as an inference that Ratliff is an incapable defensive player would be incorrect to say the least.

In fact, attempting to use any statistics from Ratliff's first two years in Gainesville would leave one ill-prepared to comprehend the transformation she would make in her junior season.

A Fresh Start

Ratliff came back motivated in 2007 for her third season at UF.

A lifetime signal caller, she entered college with the idea of being behind the mask for four years.

"Coming in, I was a catcher," she said. "I was pretty convinced that was where I had to play."

Her opportunity, however, came in right field.

It was playing there every day where she did what she does best: hit the ball.

In 64 games, she hit .280, drove in 28 runs, scored 21 times and added five home runs - the first five home runs of her career.

"If you can hit, they'll find a place for you," she said.

In addition to offensive numbers, Ratliff posted a statistic that is the epitome of the expression, "coming full circle."

The player who sparingly found the green grass in right field of Pressly Stadium her first two years became one of only two Gators to have a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage during the course of the season.

"It felt good. I don't know how to describe the feeling," she said. "Coming to the ballpark every day knowing that you're going to play, you're going to get a chance, I think that's just what everyone wants."

The transformation didn't stop there.

Her sophomore season, she moved into a house with Will, another softball player, a track athlete and three other swimmers.

During that time, Will recalls an instance when Mary came home crying one night.

"I've only ever seen her cry a couple of times," he said. "She's not a very emotional person."

But the pressures of living up to the expectations she set for herself, and the feeling that then-new coach Tim Walton didn't want her was enough to break down the normally even-keeled Ratliff.

"She was going through the don't-know-if-you're-good-enough kind of thing," Will said.

It seems silly now to look back and think a coach who describes his only senior as "someone everyone enjoys, funny, into the game, and smart on and off the field" would rather not have her around.

Ratliff's relationship with Walton has come just as far as any part of her game during their time together at UF.

"When he first came in my sophomore year, I didn't understand everything he would say," she said. "Now, I know exactly what he's going to do all the time, and it's kind of scary in a way, makes you feel a little crazy."

With Walton looking to Ratliff - who he says is a coach on and off the field - to guide a talented young group, the player who saw the field for only innings at a time is now counted on for the value of her experience.

It's a role Ratliff embraces.

"Now, with all these young kids, we have 20 players, and not everyone is going to play every day, and I feel like I can kind of mentor them a little bit because I've been there," she said. "I've now worn every hat you can wear in this program. I've been somebody who doesn't play. I've been somebody who plays in spots. I've been the everyday player, and I think that will be better for all of us, hopefully."

Walton says Ratliff has become the teammate players lean on for personality, and with through-the-roof expectations heading into her senior year - UF came within one game of the Women's College World Series a year ago - she'll be leaning on them to make her last go around a memorable one.

"I'm really excited," she said. "I'm really glad this gets to be the team that I go out with."

Ratliff and the No. 13 Gators (5-0) have already gotten off to a fast start.

After UF's season-opening tournament, Ratliff leads the team in runs (5), hits (6), total bases (11) and slugging percentage (.846).

She's also tied for the team lead in doubles (2) and was one of three Gators to log a home run, all while hitting .462.

"I think I have a much better year in me," she said when asked about matching her production from a year ago.

Every time Ratliff takes the field this spring, her scarred left hand tucked into her glove, she'll be proving to everyone - but most importantly to herself - that every decision made up to this point has been the right one for her.

With each home run and successful defensive play she will engrain her legacy as the only senior on the team Walton says might be his most talented ever.

"I think what every player wants when they come to this program is to leave a lasting impression," she said.

"Numbers - we can talk about numbers all day. But at the end of the season, I don't want it to be that I hit .300. I want it to be all those freshmen that are coming through, I want them to tell stories about me when I'm gone."

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