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Sunday, November 28, 2021

UF softball seniors looking to cement legacy

<p>Kelsey Stewart throws to first base during UF's 2-1 win against UNF on April 1, 2015, at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.</p>

Kelsey Stewart throws to first base during UF's 2-1 win against UNF on April 1, 2015, at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.

It’s something that only one other program has accomplished in NCAA softball history.

It is unexpected, elusive and extraordinary: a three-peat.

A third consecutive national title makes a champion transcend the other great teams of the past, turning it into a dynasty.

Only UCLA has achieved this feat when it was crowned champions in 1988, 1989 and 1990.

While Arizona experienced a run of excellence in the mid-1990s, winning four championships in five years, it wasn’t able to win three uninterrupted.

In 2016, the UF softball team will not only be competing against stiff competition in the Southeastern Conference and across the country — it will be challenging history.

Come Friday, Kelsey Stewart, Aubree Munro, Taylor Schwarz, Taylore Fuller and Kirsti Merritt will embark on their final campaign as the Gators begin play in the USF Wilson-DeMarini Tournament in Tampa.

For Florida’s five seniors, the upcoming season presents an opportunity to go down as one of the greatest classes the program has seen.

From their first season three years ago, the quintet has played a crucial role in Florida’s success.

"We played… all five of the seniors their freshman year," coach Tim Walton said.

"We leaned on them pretty early."

This was especially evident on June 1, 2013.

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In the second round of the Women’s College World Series, Florida battled Nebraska for 15 innings in a grueling game that Florida won by a final score of 9-8.

The five freshmen who had produced all season continued to play at a high level when the lights were brightest.

"The biggest one was probably the Nebraska game," Walton said.

"Every one of them had a part in that. What could have been a loss … ended up being a victory.

"I think that was really when you started to notice how much we were gonna rely on those, at the time freshman, and now seniors."

Although the 2013 team’s title hopes were dashed the following day in a 3-0 loss to Texas, the young talent on the team was evident.

Now, as the Gators prepare to kick off the 2016 season, the group has compiled an impressive list of personal accolades to complement a pair of national championships.

The most notable is Stewart, the 2015 SEC Player of the Year who has also been a member of the U.S. National Team since 2014.

If Florida is to continue its recent run of success and cement its legacy as a dynasty, its five seniors will have to be catalysts.

Contact Brian Lee at blee@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @brianlee_17

Kelsey Stewart throws to first base during UF's 2-1 win against UNF on April 1, 2015, at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.

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