Florida softball coach Tim Walton remembers when it all began descending: March 11, 2020.
Earlier in the day, UF President Kent Fuchs ordered all classes to transition to online learning. Walton said he and other Gator head coaches met with athletic director Scott Stricklin that afternoon in advance of UF’s biggest game of the season against rival FSU.
“I had a feeling it would be bad,” Walton said. “I told my team ‘Just trust me. Don't take anything for granted. Leave everything you thought on the field out there tonight because you never know when an opportunity is going to be taken away from you.’”
Under clear skies, No. 7 Florida knocked off No. 12 FSU 5-2 in front of 1,900 fans. The next day, the NCAA canceled all winter and spring sports championships.
A year later, Walton and the Gators exploded out of the gate once again (14-1). First baseman Kendyl Lindaman, who hit a home run against the Seminoles, said the team felt prepared to tackle No. 24 Baylor after the FSU game March 13.
“We were going to have no fans for Baylor because of COVID protocol,” Lindaman said. “But we're still expecting to play them. So, we were just playing it like it was our last game with fans.”
Once the SEC and NCAA put the season on hold, Lindaman didn’t know when she would see her teammates again.
“It was one of those things where I just really didn't believe that it was actually happening,” Lindaman said. “The day after we found out that our season was over, we sat in the media room not knowing if you're going to have another season.”
Lindaman started softball at 6 and never went that long without practices or games. She did workouts at home until the team facility opened in August. She said she faced difficulties and decided to put softball aside.
Walton, meanwhile, morphed into a stereotypical Florida man during the quarantine. He spent close to 90 hours on a boat he bought in January.
“It was kind of my saving grace,” Walton said. “You couldn’t do anything, so we were out there boating, tubing, wakeboarding. That’s how my life was those days.”
Florida missed team building and continuity during the pandemic. A normal Gators softball season involves nearly 70 games. In those dog days of April and May, the team tends to grow close.
“As a group, we started to establish consistent meeting days, so we met about once a week,” Walton said. In June, new faces checked into the meetings.
“We started to include our freshman once they graduated,” Walton said. “We even started a couple book clubs.”
Freshman Avery Goelz said the Zoom meetings made it easier for her to recognize teammates when they transitioned to in-person again. She said it was exciting to see people in-person again since she’d be home for five months.
“I didn’t think the transition was hard, but I also didn’t know what to expect,” Goelz said.
Goelz’s sister, Kinsey, joined the team in 2019 after transferring from Mississippi State. She said she sees her sister often.
To Walton, this campaign has disappointed a bit. He said that last season, many unsung players stepped up, while this season, the lofty expectations have weighed the offense down. Walton added the squad refuses to use last season as motivation, despite the excellent start and disheartening ending.
“But this year’s team plays differently than last year’s team,” he said. “We have a lot more players who are unproven. I don’t think we are playing motivated because I don’t think we are feeling the pandemic personally as a team.”
Third baseman Charla Echols said the team feels more relaxed this time around.
“This year, we are just coming and playing hard,” she said. “We are all happy to just be playing, so that’s the difference between last year and this year.”
Center fielder Cheyenne Lindsey said her approach to the game changed as a result of last season’s outcome.
“I can’t take playing for granted anymore,” she said. “Last season was supposed to be my first full season playing for Florida, and it was taken away, so now I am just playing every game like it could be my last.”
Contact Noah Ram at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @Noah_ram1
Noah is a third year journalism-sports and media student from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He has been with The Alligator since Spring 2019 and has covered men’s and women’s tennis, gymnastics and volleyball. When he isn’t on his beat, Noah is usually sadden over his beloved South Florida sports teams, such as the Heat and Dolphins.