Softball notebook: Exceeding expectations

Tim Walton didn't have an issue with the preseason polls. The Southeastern Conference coaches predicted Florida to finish fourth in the SEC East and seventh overall in the conference. On Sunday, the Gators clinched the conference title. The youth and inexperience on the roster didn't slow the program in what was thought to be a down year.

But the preseason predictions were never talked about. Walton said multiple times this season that he would've voted the Gators in the exact same position. He wasn't sure what his young team would do once the season started.

The results were startling. Florida finished the regular season on Saturday with a 49-7 record, going 18-6 in the SEC and 27-3 at home. The conference title was the third time under Walton and the fourth in program history.

"We were picked seventh in the league, and we didn't use that as motivation," Tim Walton said. "I would've picked up as seventh, too. When you raise the expectation and keep winning series, anything can happen."

The strength of the team was its chemistry. It lacked in that department during the 2013 season, but the new roster with multiple unfamiliar faces improved as the season went on. Walton credited what happened in the weight room for making that occur.

Strength and conditioning coach Paul Chandler put the team through a difficult offseason that was focused on building character and bringing the team closer together. The chemistry built during the offseason in the weight room carried to the softball field.

This was also the first year the softball program traveled with a strength and conditioning coach, continuing to build that camaraderie when playing on the road.

"I've been a firm believer that that's where it's built -- the weight room," Walton said. "That's where you get team chemistry and that bond together. They've done a good job."

Walton credited the two seniors -- Kelsey Horton and Ensley Gammel -- for bringing the team together during the offseason. The younger players looked up to them throughout the season. Over the weekend at South Carolina, the younger players set up a graduation ceremony on the bus for the seniors to ‘walk' and get their diplomas since the team was on the road during graduation weekend.

For a team that ended the 2012 season with chemistry issues, the offseason served to bring the new group closer together, anchored by Gammel and Horton.

"You hope that you're recruiting a lot of the same type of personalities, people and goals," Walton said. "This team has meshed themselves together. I give credit to our two seniors."

The outcome of the weekend produced an interesting outcome for Walton. The Gators split a double header on Saturday at South Carolina that was played because of weather concerns about Sunday. That meant the Gators needed Tennessee to lose on Sunday at Missouri for the Gators to take the title. After a back-and-forth game, Missouri beat the Volunteers 12-8.

But Walton didn't know what happened.

He decided to use the off day to spend with his family and give his wife the Mother's Day she probably wouldn't be able to have on the actual day because of the season. He turned his phone off and spent the day with his family, finding out the Gators won the SEC title in a strange way.

"We had a nice fun day as a family," Walton said. "I was informed that we won the SEC Championship by a perfect stranger. It was one of the coolest conversations I've had. It meant a lot more to me that way than to watch the scoreboard and be on pins and needles."

Walton turned his phone on to find a voicemail from his team, singing ‘it's great to be a Florida Gator' and screaming. Walton sent the girls a mass text message to congratulate them on the accomplishment.

"Any time you go into a final weekend series with an opportunity to win a championship, it's good for our team, the sport and the league," Walton said. "We're excited about representing the SEC with a championship."

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