Twice before the Gators had knocked on the door of an NCAA softball championship only to come up short. This year, there was no knocking on the door. This year the Gators kicked the door down, taking two straight from Southeastern Conference archrival Alabama including Tuesday night's 6-3 national championship clincher.
Hannah Rogers, who shut out Alabama Monday night, didn't get the start for the final game, but she came on in relief to get the save in the last two innings, capping off one of the more dominating runs any pitcher has had in NCAA Tournament history. Rogers went 7-0 in tournament play, pitching six shutouts and allowing only four runs in 44 innings pitched. At the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City, Rogers pitched 28 innings, gave up only 16 hits and four runs with three shutouts and a save, which earned her the MVP of the tournament.
Give plenty of credit to a change in hitting philosophy by Florida coach Tim Walton before the season began for making this championship possible. Always a believer in three-run home runs, Walton elected to add more line drive hitters and speed to the lineup prior to the season and it paid off. The Gators still hit their share of home runs, but it took awhile to completely adjust. Once they stopped hitting so many fly balls and started moving runners along, dropping down bunts and finding the gaps with line drives, the offense became truly formidable. In NCAA Tournament play, the Gators outscored opponents, 81-10.
Late one afternoon at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium, Tim Walton and I talked about how he became a softball coach. It wasn't by design. A pitcher who got the win when Oklahoma beat Georgia Tech to win the College World Series in 1994, Walton thought his future was in baseball. The only reason he was coaching softball (assistant coach at Oklahoma) was it gave him a paycheck. Then the tears got to him.
Walton discovered that the young women who play college softball are so passionate about their sport that they break down in tears, not just after the game if they've lost or they're overwhelmed with joy, but DURING the game if they strike out in key situations or can't make a play. Seeing how important it was to the players to play well and earn the trust of coaches and teammates, made a softball coach out of Walton.
"I was hooked," Walton told me. "I couldn't walk away from that kind of passion and love of the game."
Nine years into his gig as the head coach at the University of Florida, Walton ranks as one of the best hires Jeremy Foley has ever made. Prior to Walton, the Gators had made it to six NCAA regionals but never to the super regional round. In Walton's nine years, the Gators have won three SEC championships, made it to the Women's College World Series six times, to the championship round three times and as of today, won a national title.
Athlon, Lindy's and Sporting News are already out and all three are cautiously optimistic that the Gators will return to the top 25. Athlon ranks the Gators #23; Lindy's has the Gators #25; and Sporting News ranks the Gators #22.
In the SEC, all three predict Alabama and Auburn 1-2 in the SEC West. In the SEC East, Lindy's and Sporting News pick South Carolina #1 with Georgia #2 while Athlon has it Georgia-South Carolina. All three publications have the Gators finishing third. Lindy's ranks the SEC top to bottom, 1-14, like this: 1. Alabama; 2. Auburn; 3. South Carolina; 4. LSU; 5. Georgia; 6. Ole Miss; 7. Florida; 8. Texas A&M; 9. Missouri; 10. Mississippi State; 11. Tennessee; 12. Vanderbilt; 13. Arkansas; and 14. Kentucky.
In its unit rankings for the SEC, Athlon ranks the Gators #8 at quarterback; #10 at running back; #11 at receivers; #12 on the O-line; #3 on the D-line, #4 at linebacker and #3 in the secondary. Lindy's ranks Florida #4 at quarterback; #7 at running back and receivers; #6 on the O-line; #3 on the D-line; #4 at linebacker and secondary; and #1 for special teams.
25. Chris Leak, Quarterback (2003-06): The day he signed with the Gators he said he promised to lead Florida to a national championship. On the biggest stage of his life in his final game as a Gator he destroyed Ohio State and made good on his promise. He threw 88 touchdown passes and 11,213 yards in his career.
24. Lito Sheppard, Cornerback (1999-2001): He was a two-time All-American who locked down one side of the field. He had eight interceptions in his career, one that he ran back for a touchdown. He also averaged 11.4 yards per punt return for two touchdowns and also averaged 22.5 yards on kickoff returns.
23. Errict Rhett, Running Back (1990-93): He's Florida's all-time leading rusher with 4,154 yards and 34 touchdowns, plus caught 153 passes for 1,230 yards and two more touchdowns. You could count on one hand the number of times he got stuffed short of a first down on third or fourth and short.
22. Fred Taylor, Running Back (1994-97): He ran for 1,292 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior in 1997. In his career he ran for 3,078 yards and 31 touchdowns. The Gators were 31.5 point underdogs to FSU in 1997 but Taylor ran for 162 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Gators to a 32-29 upset that cost the Seminoles a chance to play for the national championship.
21. Kerwin Bell, Quarterback (1984-87): He was the SEC Player of the Year as a freshman, earning the starting job only because of an injury to Dale Dorminey three days before the season opener with Miami. The Gators were 18-2-2 with Bell as a starter his first two seasons. Injuries and Florida's scholarship depleted roster due to NCAA sanctions reduced his numbers in 1986-87 seasons.
1. Ramik Wilson, Georgia: Wilson averaged more than 10 tackles per game last year and is expected to do even better this year in a new scheme that is more linebacker oriented. His numbers last year were 133 tackles including four sacks and 11 for loss, three pass breakups and two quarterback hurries.
2. A.J. Johnson, Tennessee: Johnson has 324 career tackles, 106 last season. He will have to be even better this year than the previous two because Tennessee's defensive line is in a complete rebuild mode.
3. Leonard Floyd, Georgia: He is the scariest linebacker in the league coming off the edge. As a freshman last year he had 6.5 sacks along with 16 quarterback hurries and 9.5 tackles for loss. He also forced two fumbles and blocked a punt.
4. Trey DePriest, Alabama: No pressure at all on DePriest. He simply has to replace tackling machine C.J. Mosley. DePriest was in on 65 tackles last year including 7.5 for loss and two sacks along with two fumbles forced and an interception.
5. Bernardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Coming into his junior season, he has 172 career tackles including 11.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. The NFL is drooling over this 6-5, 250-pound specimen who can run like a deer.
6. Amario Herrera, Georgia: He isn't spectacular but he's so steady. He very quietly was in on 112 tackles last year including five for loss to go with an interception, six pass breakups, six quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.
7. Cassanova McKinzy, Auburn: He was Auburn's leading tackler last season as a sophomore with 75 including eight for loss, two sacks and an interception. Now that he's moved from the weak side to his natural position in the middle, his numbers should increase substantially.
8. D.J. Welter, LSU: He was outstanding on the outside last year, his first as a starter. Now he moves to the middle where he takes over for Lamin Barrow even though he's a bit undersized at 226 pounds. Welter was in on 80 tackles lsat season with four for loss, two sacks and three quarterback hurries.
9. Skai Moore, South Carolina: He was the top tackler on a very good South Carolina defense last season. He needs to add some weight (he's barely 210) but he's got the kind of speed to run down people.
10. Antonio Morrison, Florida: Morrison finished second on the team in tackles (56) last season even though he missed four games with an injury. He makes the plays he's supposed to make but he only has two tackles for loss in two seasons. If he can make tackles in the hole for no gain or loss, his stock will soar.
What team do you think will be the surprise of the SEC in 2014? Which do you think will be the most overrated?
The Revivalists are a New Orleans band that has been around since 2007. They are a unique blend of rock and roll, New Orleans soul and some Mississippi Delta blues in a band fronted by David Shaw, whose unique vocal style seems to fit a band that really can't be defined. The Revivalists are also a band that seems to never stop touring. They'll be at the Suwanee Music Park on August 23 for the Blackwater Music Festival. The song today is "Soul's Too Loud" from their "Vital Signs" CD. This song combines some electronic with the blues for a very cool sound.