Walton, Gators Back Where They’re Expected to Be

OKLAHOMA CITY — Every team in every sport plays a season, which doubles as a journey, with its mix of pitfalls, triumphs and moments of adversity.

Take Florida softball in 2022, for example.

The Gators got off to a hot start, winning their first 16 games and 23 of the first 24. The Southeastern Conference season proved to be something of a struggle for the defending league champions, what with some cold spells of offense. UF won three of its first four SEC series, but there was a dreadful performance (in victory, no less) at Texas A&M that had Coach Tim Walton smoking afterward. Florida swept a road series at Ole Miss that weather squeezed to three games in 36 hours, but lost star second baseman Hannah Adams to a hand injury along the way. The next weekend, the Gators were swept at home by eventual conference champ Arkansas and after a 9-1 loss at LSU five days later, sat at 11-11 in SEC play and in fifth place.

Then came a clutch, extra-inning homer by Cheyenne Lindsey (0-for-4 with four strikeouts when she stepped to the plate in the ninth) to give the Gators the road series at Baton Rouge, La. Two weeks later, when the SEC Tournament came to Gainesville, Adams was back at second base and injecting her team with positive mojo (and base hits). Florida hosted the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament and put together its best three-day offensive stretch of the season to earn a trip to third-seeded Virginia Tech in Super Regional play. There, the Gators were punched 6-0 in Game 1, then — with their backs against the wall for the next two days — obliterated the host Hokies with wins of 7-2 and 12-0 and advanced to their 11th Women’s College World Series . Now, despite finishing tied for fourth in the conference standings and losing 11 times in league play, Florida is the only SEC team still playing.

With consistent success comes expectations. That’s part of the deal.

Doesn’t make it any easier to get here.

[Read senior writer Chris Harry‘s ‘2002 WCWS Primer here]

On Wednesday, Walton sat at the WCWS news conference podium at the USA Softball Hall of Fame Complex, along with Adams, third baseman Charla Echols and short stop Skylar Wallace and talked about his team. It was only a month or so ago that social media was being rather unkind to this team, just another reason why this latest trip to OKC — by way of the Super Region road win, no less — all the more satisfying.

“This is a down year for the Gators, and here we are in Oklahoma City. This is a down year for Charla Echols, and she’s hitting .300 with 50-some RBIs,” said Walton, whose 14th-seeded Gators (48-17) open WCWS play Thursday night against unseeded Oregon State (39-20) at OGE Energy Field. “How is this down ? The expectations that we have and that our fans have around the country for the Gators is really high.”

UF coach Tim Waltonback in OKC for the first time since 2019 (and for the 11th time since 2008), during Wednesday’s practice at USA Softball Hall of Fame Complex.

Since Walton, in his third season, guided UF to its first WCWS Series in 2008 — and then did it again in ’09, ’10, ’11 and ’13, then won back-to-back NCAA titles in 2014 and ’15 — packing for the Sooner State on Memorial Day basically has become a rite of passage for the program.

Yes, these are the expectations that Walton, who won his 1,000th career game in April, has cultivated, and the expectations Adams signed up for out of high school, and that Echols and Wallace sought when they transferred to Florida from Michigan State and Alabama , respectively.

“That’s why you come to Florida; to play for championships and to win SEC championships and go to the World Series,” said Adams, choosing to accept those expectations rather than be prisoner to them. “At times, I think the expectations can get to you, but I think this team has really embraced just taking it one game at a time and not letting the last game affect our next game or our last at-bat affect the next at- bat. Just trying to embrace every single moment and not take anything for granted.”

Added Echols: “It’s all about the team. The expectations, they are what they are. But as long as you have people beside you that you know they have your back through it all, you can get over yourself pretty quickly.”

All America second baseman Hannah Adamswith a COVID year to spend, came back for a fifth season with the Gators and will end her stellar UF career in the Women’s College World Series

It may have taken the ’22 Gators a tad longer to get to that point. Walton even admitted as much Thursday. They needed time to realize that comparing this season to seasons past wasn’t going to make the team hit or pitch better.

Instead, they had to look inward and, in doing so, had to have some tough conversations among themselves that may have hurt some feelings, but also inspired some toughness and attitude change.

“I think one of the things this team really embodies [is] just the ‘team’ word,” Walton said. “The chemistry on the field, the chemistry in our work ethic and just the constant ability to communicate with each other the right way, push each other and lead not only by example, but also lead with some encouraging and sometimes discouraging words. You have to be honest and accountable.”

It’s all part of the process over a long season. Part of the journey.

In the Gators case, another journey that will end, come what may, in OKC. And that’s never a bad thing.

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