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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Unfinished Business: Only a title will satisfy UF in '09

After his team's historic, record-breaking season in 2008, UF coach Tim Walton said he didn't think any other team would ever win 70 games, which his squad did en route to a Women's College World Series semifinals loss.

But he never said this year's team couldn't be even better.

It would have been impossible for the 2009 Gators to rack up as many wins as they did last season, and it seemed unthinkable that a team could match or improve upon a historical year like 2008.

"We're definitely a lot deeper and a lot more experienced and probably a lot more talented than we were last year," Walton said. "Last year's team knew how to play and did some special things, but this year's team is starting to do a good job of being able to embrace that and could potentially even be better than we were before."

Now, UF is back in Oklahoma City. Despite how little has changed between this year and last year, this is a different team with a different mission.

The WCWS experience was brand new for UF in 2008, as it was the first time in school history the team had reached the final leg of the postseason run.

The Gators now have the benefit of experience on their side, as all but three players have already played on college softball's biggest stage.

Kelsey Bruder, the only new starter and the only unknown quantity before UF's first game this year, has proven to be one of the surest things on the roster. The sophomore has been dominant at the plate and the only consistent presence in the outfield all season.

UF has responded to the challenge of being the No. 1 team in the nation, a position it has now held for 10 straight weeks.

Unlike last season, Walton has developed more depth at the plate and in the field. Junior Francesca Enea's preseason ACL tear, senior Kim Waleszonia's early season knee fracture and sophomore Tiffany DeFelice's on-again-off-again wrist injury allowed some players to step into starting roles.

With the injuries behind them, a 12-deep group of hitters and Stacey Nelson in the pitching circle, the Gators are even better prepared for a national championship run than they were last year.

No Pain, No Gain

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It's easy to assume that remaining injury-free is one of the most important aspects of having a successful season. If only it were that simple.

The Gators only sustained one meaningful injury in their miracle run last year, but it came in the WCWS when DeFelice - the five-hole hitter - injured her left wrist. At the time, DeFelice was as hot as any hitter in the country.

But the injury didn't just cost UF one of its best hitters, it exposed a crack in the armor: The bench players were relatively inexperienced and untested.

"We really didn't have any depth once you got past our starting nine," Walton said. "This year, we're going to go probably 10, 11 or 12 deep."

This season, Walton made a noticeable attempt to get more of his players involved, even when everyone was healthy at the beginning of the season.

Enea's torn ACL limited the number of innings she could play in the first month or so of play, but senior Brooke Johnson proved to be a more-than-capable left fielder and pinch runner whenever the need arose.

Despite the injury, Enea jumped out as one of the hottest hitters in the nation and still had the luxury of resting her knee late in games when the Gators had a big lead.

"We're a little bit more experienced this year, and we're able to overcome that adversity and able to pick each other up," second baseman Aja Paculba said. "One through twenty, we're solid. With those injuries, we know that there's someone on the bench who can come through for us."

Freshman outfielder Michelle Moultrie, who brings the kind of speed on the basepaths and range in the outfield that can prove invaluable in the postseason, saw innings early on.

Nobody could have predicted Waleszonia's knee injury that sidelined her for three months, but Moultrie's early season experience allowed UF to not miss a beat without the school's career hits leader in the lineup.

Moultrie and fellow freshman outfielder Alicia Sisco, who saw time in right field as a result of Waleszonia's injury, can now be used to mix things up even with Waleszonia back in the lineup and in center field.

"Different people are going to be successful in different situations, and they've all gotten a chance to do that," student coach Mary Ratliff said. "Injuries are bad, but sometimes they're a blessing as well. We've definitely gotten the best out of those, and now at the end of the season, people are back and ready to go."

Ratliff, Walton and the rest of the coaching staff have found themselves in an enjoyable predicament: How do they fill out a lineup card every game with as many options as they have?

The Gators have 12 players batting above .250 and nine above .300. They have more power hitting than they know what to do with - even Paculba, the leadoff hitter, has nine home runs with a .626 slugging percentage. Shortstop Megan Bush, who usually bats seventh, has the numbers of a cleanup hitter: .338 batting average, 14 home runs, 43 RBIs and a .719 slugging percentage.

"You can't pitch around anybody," Walton said. "You pitch around Ali (Gardiner) and Francesca's going to get you. You pitch around her, then Kelsey's going to get you. And it just keeps going on down the road. Just when you think you've got it, then Michelle sneaks a bunt or a double in there."

Being forced to overcome the adversity has been a blessing in disguise for the Gators, but one of the most important additions to the lineup didn't come from an injury.

Stepping In, Stepping Up

Ratliff - the starting right fielder and only senior on last year's team - consistently provided clutch hits when her team needed them and brought the kind of leadership one would expect from a senior. But if you ask her, someone else probably should have been playing her position.

"I tell (Walton) every day he looks dumb for not playing that Bruder kid last year," Ratliff said. "I expected her to have a really good year, but I don't think you can expect someone to come in and do what she's done."

Last year, Bruder batted a meager .133, going 6 for 45 with one homer, seven RBIs and 15 strikeouts. Ratliff described the 2008 Bruder as a one-dimensional at the plate - a straight, dead-pull hitter.

"Kelsey's done the same thing that all the great ones have done," Walton said. "You look at Francesca's freshman year and Stacey Nelson's freshman year and Kelsey Bruder's freshman year, and they learned how to play at this level. Kelsey's no exception to that."

Bruder has done it all for the Gators in 2009, batting second immediately following Waleszonia's injury before settling in as the five-hole hitter. Her stats are comparable to those of Enea - third on the team in batting average (.385), second in home runs (15) and second in RBIs (66) - providing an invaluable luxury for the coaching staff and an absolute nightmare for anyone looking to pitch to the middle of UF's lineup.

Bruder, a natural infielder who will likely take over at first base next season, has bought into her role as an outfielder. She has been the starter in right for most of the season but has also occasionally moved into center, allowing Sisco to start in right field or Waleszonia to take a less strenuous role upon returning from injury.

The sophomore's performance has also made Ratliff's transition from outfield to dugout less stressful. As the right fielder in 2008, Ratliff has taken comfort in the fact that her old position is in good hands.

"It's been pretty easy. I take tremendous pride in her," Ratliff said. "It makes me feel like they're a step better than we were last year. From her being one step better, we'll see how much that pays off in the end."

If Bruder's breakout season puts the Gators one step closer to the program's first national title, then it could be their experience that pushes them over the edge.

Been There, Done That

Pressure is nothing new for UF.

The Gators found themselves in a do-or-die situation against Virginia Tech in last year's WCWS. In a 0-0 game in the bottom of the seventh and UF one loss away from elimination, the Hokies loaded the bases with no outs.

Nelson forced a double play and a groundout to preserve the shutout and force the game into extra innings, and the Gators prevailed in the ninth thanks to some clutch hitting by Gardiner, Enea and Ratliff.

"The good thing about this team is that we've been through every scenario," Walton said. "We've had our backs against the wall, bases loaded, no outs in the College World Series with the season on the line. I don't think there's going to be a situation that they're not prepared for."

UF has seen every team's best effort this season, as the team has been ranked No. 1 in the nation nearly all year. The pressure may have been too much in 2008 - and maybe even at the beginning of 2009, as the Gators dropped their third game of the year to Baylor.

"Now, I think we're able to play as opposed to worrying about the expectations," Walton said. "Everybody coming into the season was a little bit fearful of the expectations. So we just worried about how to play, and the other stuff just kind of takes care of itself."

When the Gators once again step on to college softball's biggest stage, it will come after a season full of dealing with expectations.

The presence of ESPN cameras won't have an effect on the team like it did last year - although the players will likely still pay more attention to their hair and makeup than they would for non-televised games, as Enea said every player does before taking the field.

"We're ready to go back, and that experience has paid off all season," Ratliff said. "We've had the advantage of being on TV before. We just kind of get in a process and play the game. Once the first pitch is thrown, you forget about those things. Last year's experience, I think, was key to this year's team."

Whether it was a learning experience or simply a tournament that last year's team wasn't capable of winning, UF has shored up its major flaws from 2008, added much-needed depth at the plate, added a talented young star and become the most experienced team in the field.

Now, the Gators are five wins away from an astounding two-year record of 135-8 and achieving the goal they made after the WCWS in 2008: bringing home the national championship in 2009.

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