Florida’s softball team enters the 2016 season with a target on its back.
After winning a second-straight national championship at the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City last year, the Gators are just days away from kicking off their campaign.
And this time, visiting teams will get to see the visual representation of that target in the form of a new championship billboard, which will be unveiled in right-center field during UF’s home opener against Jacksonville on Feb. 17.
But as the season debut creeps closer, coach Tim Walton and the team are becoming more focused on the sign that matters most — the scoreboard.
The Gators kick off the season this weekend with the USF Wilson-DeMarini Tournament. Florida will first face Illinois State on Friday in a game that will serve as an appetizer to Saturday’s main course against No. 2 Michigan.
Walton said he likes the idea of starting the season on the road because it forces the players to spend a weekend with each other. It allows for the players to center themselves on their teammates and the tournament and mute other distractions. That sense of team is especially important to Walton, whose staff has created a culture of friendship and respect among players of all classes.
Newcomer Amanda Lorenz has gotten to experience that transition into the team’s culture. Ranked the No. 1 2015 recruit by FloSoftball, Lorenz still gets nervous like any other freshman.
"I think I just need the first game to get out of the way," Lorenz said. "It’s just the anticipation. I’ve been waiting for this day for such a long time. I’m just anxious to start so I can get the jitters out."
The Gators have also brought in freshman pitcher Kelly Barnhill, a highly touted prospect who says Walton and his staff helped solidify her decision to attend UF.
"A lot of it had to do with the coaches," Barnhill said. "The coaches here are amazing, and I look forward to working with them through the rest of the season and the next four years."
Walton sang the praises of his new pitcher as well, emphasizing the arsenal of weapons at her disposal.
"She’s got a lot of tools," Walton said. "There’s the velocity, the movement, the competitiveness, the want of the ball every game, I think she has all those things.
"She’s different than we’ve had before — just with the number of strikeouts that she comes in with as a junior olympic athlete."
But Walton knows he can’t expect to win by leaning on a single class to contribute, even one as stacked as this year’s five proven seniors.
Walton reminisced of the core’s freshman years, how each of them made meaningful contributions from the start. From Taylore Fuller getting a huge hit in the gap to help the Gators win late in a game against Alabama in 2013, to Kelsey Stewart, who Walton said hit a triple off the wall in her first at bat, UF has always been able to depend on that group of leaders.
While there are still some unknowns about the roster, the first month of the season will act as a period for Walton to tweak his lineup and get some different looks.
But even with a level of uncertainty in the air, Walton and the Gators are as confident as ever in their practice, program and ability to perform in big situations.
"When you do it once, there can be a lot of things that go your way, and you get it done. When you do it twice — and you do it twice in a row — there’s nothing lucky about that."
Coach Tim Walton walks back to the dugout during Florida's 1-0 win over Florida Atlantic on May 17, 2015, at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.