Players rest their heads on bus windows, alone in rows typically shared with teammates. Half of the team scatters throughout the seats as the other half rides a separate bus.
The distance between them stretches beyond six feet – it extends into every aspect of team activity. Florida softball modified travel routines with COVID-19 protocols and notes their effect on road games’ intangible aspects.
The team’s 2020 schedule featured 25 games outside of Gainesville, including two neutral tournaments. The Gators played 10 before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the season.
UF plays at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium for the majority of the season to minimize health risks. This year’s schedule includes just 18 away games and no neutral tournaments except for the SEC and NCAA tournaments.
It played just two games in Tampa before a 12-game homestand compared to last year’s first five games in Tampa followed by an eight-game homestand.
The No. 5 Gators hold a 30-4 record, but three of their four losses came on the road.
In their third road game against FSU, the Seminoles cracked Florida’s perfect record with a 7-2 win.
Florida brought 35 people, split between two buses, to Tallahassee. Players who live together are broken into pods and ride the bus with one another. Position groups stick together as much as possible.
Staff and players don masks or face coverings for the trip’s duration. Raucous pre-game chatter transforms into murmurs of mild conversation across aisles.
“It's not as great for team chemistry or maybe some other bonds that you might build on the road,” head coach Tim Walton said. “But I think, overall, the things in place are necessary adjustments for all of our travel.”
Most precautionary measures taken on the road also apply to home games, Walton said. Pre-game meals and congregation look different, too.
Play-by-play broadcaster Kyle Crooks reported to the ESPN radio broadcast that the two UF buses arrived 30 minutes apart before the FSU matchup.
A correlation between the delay and the loss to FSU appears shaky, if it exists at all. But to Walton, it remains a possibility.
“You just don't have the normal conversations on the bus with people that you don't know or that you're not as close with,” Walton said.
In normal seasons, senior pitcher Natalie Lugo and the staff ask each other for feedback. Fifth-year left fielder Jaimie Hoover encourages and challenges underclassmen to handle failure on-and-off the field.
This season, those valuable exchanges happen outside of bus rides.
Freshman infielder Avery Goelz entered the season with foggy expectations, prepared for COVID-19 to reshape the typical freshman experience.
“I'd still say that a lot of people on the team are really trying to make sure that you feel at home here,” Goelz said. “So it's been a little different, but I still really love it here.”
Despite the challenges health protocols pose, socially distanced seating can’t contain the Gators’ competitive energy. Florida remains steadfast in its mission to approach every game, home or away, with tenacity.
Contact Rachel Slay at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @racheljslay