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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Unfinished business: three seniors return to Florida softball with extended eligibility

A crushing disappointment became a crucial decision

<p>Seniors Katie Chronister (left), Kendyl Lindaman (center) and Jaimie Hoover (right) all return to the mound after the team’s promising spring season was cut short due to COVID-19.<br/></p><p><br/>				<br/>			<br/>		<br/>	<br/></p>

Seniors Katie Chronister (left), Kendyl Lindaman (center) and Jaimie Hoover (right) all return to the mound after the team’s promising spring season was cut short due to COVID-19.

The 2020 Florida softball team was riding a six-game win streak. 

No. 7 Florida sat on a 23-4 record, including a 3-0 sweep in the SEC Opening Weekend against Auburn and a 5-2 victory over bitter rival Florida State. They lost just twice at home and outscored opponents 154-53. The Gators were rolling full steam ahead until the season derailed.

Florida’s softball team walked out of its media room with heavy hearts and tears in their eyes. The team’s promising spring season was cut short March 2020 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Fueled by a graceful combination of pain and passion, first baseman Kendyl Lindaman, outfielder Jaimie Hoover and pitcher Katie Chronister took the field Feb. 13 as fifth-year seniors. 

The NCAA brought a pillar of hope on March 30, 2020 and granted all student-athletes an extra year of eligibility if their spring season was canceled due to the pandemic.  

The news of the season’s demise struck Hoover like a truck. She sat back in disbelief and struggled to stay composed as the unimaginable truth set in. She had another opportunity to play in the swamp, and she didn’t hesitate. 

“I just knew that we had unfinished business to be handled,” Hoover said. “There was not a doubt in my head that I (was) gonna take it.”

Hoover stepped to the plate 169 times and collected 33 RBIs in 2019. She held a .325 batting average with three RBIs and seven runs in just 40 at-bats at the 2020 season’s end. 

To Hoover, her hard work was paying off. There was more gas in the tank and a lot more to prove.  

“If we had finished we would have been in a really good place, possibly with rings on our fingers,” Hoover said. “We’re going to continue where we left off.” 

By the time the NCAA’s announcement came, UF had closed its campus and moved all classes online. 

Head coach Tim Walton left the decision to come back up to each senior, Lindaman said. As players were home with their families, Walton let his seniors sit back and think about what was best for them. 

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Not finishing last season on their own terms left a bad taste in her mouth. To Lindaman, an extra year playing at UF was a gift.

“I didn’t even need to talk to my family about it,” Lindaman said. “It was probably one of the easiest decisions I’ve really made.”

She entered 2020 as a three-time National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-American and made three appearances on the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Top 50 Watch List. 

Lindaman was a primary suspect in all cases of Gator success during the 2020 season, with a .410 batting average and 22 RBIs. 

“Being able to end the season the way that we want to, going out together as a team,” Lindaman said. “That’s something I think of when I say ‘unfinished business.’”

Unlike her two teammates, Chronister had a lot to contemplate before deciding to return. 

Chronister, a left-handed pitcher, finished the brief 2020 season with a 1.08 ERA in 13 innings and five strikeouts. The Gainesville native cruised through her final season while getting her ducks in a row for her future.   

The pitcher graduated that spring with her bachelor’s degree in sports management. She decided to pursue a master’s degree in sports management and considered taking a graduate assistant position.

The options bounced around her head as she stood at the crossroads of working or playing for the team. She was certain Florida softball would be part of her future, but she didn’t know in what capacity that would happen.

She found solace in having a plan B, but knew her softball career wasn’t meant to be over. She had been thrust to the final sentences of a monumental chapter in her life and forced to skip pages of milestone moments. 

To Chronister, the end of her career had been taken from her too soon. 

“I just felt heartbroken for a couple of days,” Chronister said. “I don't think I was mentally prepared for it.” 

The intangible characteristics of the 2020 team, coupled with stellar athletic performance, was what made it so unique. 

“I felt included with anything I was doing, whether I was playing on the field or not,” Chronister said. “That's kind of a special feeling that you have when you're with a group of girls.” 

Naturally, the Gator softball team is competitive. However, the players focus on something not counted on the stat sheet: having a good time. 

“Honestly, if you're not smiling, then why are you doing it?” Hoover said. 

If Hoover isn’t dancing before a game, something is off. Her pre-game playlist includes Drake,  Megan Thee Stallion and more to kick off the good vibes. 

“He (Drake) isn’t really hype but he gets me moving,” she said as a subtle groove passed through her shoulders. 

There is a cool balance between competitive intensity and having fun on the field, Chronister said. As the opponent’s starters are announced before games, Chronsiter replays scouting reports in her head. Whether she’s pitching or not, she wants to stay sharp and help her teammates. 

Despite her desire to stay focused, she can’t help but smile at a certain scent that greets her every time she takes the field. She isn’t met with the sweet fragrance of grass or the thick aroma of freshly raked clay. Rather, it’s right-handed pitcher Natalie Lugo’s perfume that greets her. 

Lugo always does her makeup for games, crafting each lash to perfection and, after spending so much time next to her, Chronister now associates the scent of Lugo’s perfume with game-time.

On game days, Lindaman arrives early to hang out with her teammates to soak up every moment of this season and cherishes those off the field through the laughs, stories and smiles the team shares.

“Yes, it's great to be winning and being on the field with my team but it's the moments outside of softball… getting to know them as people. Lindaman said. “Not as players.”

But social distancing guidelines shrunk the team’s options for bonding activities. 

The team usually spent a day at Walton’s lake house, going out on the boat and playing games. The lake day didn’t happen this year, but the girls had a movie night around Christmas where they watched “Miracle” in the stands at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium. 

The team also shared presentations with pictures of their family to learn more about each other. 

“I love getting to know everyone and their background and where they come from,” Lindaman said. 

The trio was given a nickname by their teammates: “the Great-Grandma Gators.” They welcome this new title with open arms as each is a leader in their respective position group. 

As veterans, the girls draw from years of experience to help their younger teammates on-and-off the field. They want to help them overcome failure and take care of their mental health as student-athletes. 

“Being a good person on and off the field is bigger than softball,” Hoover said. “That's a lifetime thing that we can work on and get better at.”

An 11-month drought of competition allowed plenty of time for character building off the field. Now, it’s time for the Gators to remind the country who they are on the field. 

The team is antsy, and the seniors are chomping at the bit during the season’s start. They’ve been stoking the coals of extinguished flames, preparing for the chance to reignite the fire. 

“I want to win the natty,” Hoover said. “I want to win, and I want to go far with this team because I think we can do it.” 

The season will be the last for Hoover, Lindaman and Chronister – what most would call a somber thought.   

But for them, it couldn’t have started sooner.

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