For the fourth time in the last seven years, Tim Walton has the Florida softball team in the championship series at the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City. The Gators emerged out of bracket play at 3-0 Sunday with a 3-2 9-inning white knuckles win over Auburn, setting up a best two-of-three championship series with Michigan starting tonight.
The Gators, who won their first NCAA softball title last year, are the only team since 2009 to make it to the championship round more than twice. UF’s consistency on the biggest stage in all of college softball has everything to do with Walton re-inventing his own successful program. The Gators got to a pair of WCWS championship rounds with the old Earl Weaver philosophy of winning with great pitching and 3-run homers. With that style it was either feast or famine in the big games, so Walton re-tooled his roster. The Gators still have the great pitching and they can still hit the ball out of the year but they can also play small ball, win with the running game and they play incredible defense. This Florida team has the ability to adapt and on days when the offense is sputtering and the pitching isn’t dominant, it can still find ways to win as it did Sunday.
The win over Auburn was a testament to clutch pitching and the best defense in the country. Lauren Haeger didn’t have her best stuff and spent the entire day pitching with runners on base, but she got better as the game went along and saved her best stuff for crucial strikeouts in the last couple of innings. Behind Haeger, the nation’s best defensive shortstop and center fielder made huge plays. Kirsti Merritt threw out two runners at the plate from center field, while shortstop Katie Medina saved one big inning with a leaping stab of a line drive and choked off another potential big inning by cutting off a ground ball up the middle then turning in a Baryshnikov pirouette to put herself in position to make the throw to first in time.
All these heroics bought time until the bottom of the ninth when freshman Nicole Dewitt delivered a line drive to left field that was just high enough to get over the Auburn third baseman, driving in Justine McLean from second with the winning run. Teams that have learned to do whatever it takes to win big games are the kind that bring home championship trophies.
Next up for the Gators is Michigan, winner of its last 27 games. The Wolverines haven’t lost a game since April 3 when they dropped a 9-1 decision to then 14th-ranked Minnesota. When the two teams met in Fullerton, California back on March 5 in the Judi Garman tournament, Florida rallied for four runs in the final two innings to take a 7-4 win. In that game, Aleshia Ocasio relieved starter Delanie Gourley and pitched 2-hit ball over the final four innings to secure the win.
Last season when the Florida Gators laid an egg at the Gainesville Regional with a two and through performance after earning the #1 national seed, it was apparent that Kevin O’Sullivan’s baseball team had run out of gas. They were way too young, didn’t have enough power in the lineup and not enough emotional energy in the tank after an unexpected run to the regular season Southeastern Conference championship.
What has become increasingly apparent in the way the Gators closed the regular season then fought their way though the SEC Tournament is that O’Sullivan has done a masterful job of getting his ball club to peak at just the right time. In taking all three games in the Gainesville Regional, the Gators flashed power, consistent hitting, extraordinary glove work and live arms that show no weariness as the season enters its last couple of weeks. It was enough that former Georgia coach Dave Perno, a member of the ESPN broadcast team that was in town for the weekend, declared this a team capable of winning a national championship.
Perno, who took three Georgia teams to the College World Series and finished runner-up to Fresno State in 2008, hinges Florida’s chances to bring home an NCAA title on starting pitching that features A.J. Puk, who’s fast ball has been clocking in the 95-98 mph range lately, a bullpen that goes 8-9 deep, and defense that is on path to set an NCAA record. The Gators have made only 35 errors in 63 games. Perno says UF is the best defensive team he’s seen in college baseball in a long, long time.
Now throw in the element of power – the Gators have hit 55 homers so far this year; only 26 all of last season – and a team batting average that hovers just below .300 (.298 currently) and it’s a team that has the capability of doing serious damage over the next two weeks.
The Southeastern Conference distributed an NCAA record $455.8 million last week which equates to $31.2 million per school and $19 million for the league office. To put this in perspective, last year the league distributed $309.6 million or $20.9 million per school.
All this is without a full year of SEC Network money kicking in (it’s only been going for 10 months). The SEC Network is already the fifth largest sports cable network – and the greatest startup network ever -- with $547.3 million in revenues. In year one and year two, the SEC schools will each pay a portion of the startup costs for the SEC Network so figure it will be 2017 before we really see the real financial windfall. Next year it’s expected the league will distribute more than $35 million per school. After that the numbers could be mind-boggling.
Comparatively speaking, the Big Ten just distributed in the neighborhood of $30 million per school while the Big 12 handed out $25.6 million for seven full members ($23 million for TCU and West Virginia, which only joined the league back in 2012) and the Pac-12 distributed $23 million per school. The ACC will not release its per school numbers and so they won’t be known until taxes are filed (it was $20.8 million for 2014), and while revenues will be increased they won’t come anywhere close to the SEC money.
When Mike Slive took over as SEC commissioner in 2002, the league distributed $2.27 million per school, a figure that increased to $13.8 million in 2009. Missouri offers up the perfect example of how strong the SEC has become since 2009. Missouri, which joined the SEC in 2012, received $9 million from the Big 12 in 2010 and $13 million in 2011. In its three years in the SEC, Mizzou has collected $20.7 million in 2013, $20.9 million in 2014 and this year’s $31.2 million.
When the idea of cost of attendance scholarships became reality, the thought was athletes would get an additional $2,000 to perhaps $3,000 to cover the costs that their athletic scholarships didn’t cover. It all sounded so good but without a uniform agreement that caps the stipend, the potential for a year of out of control recruiting is possible. While Steve Spurrier doesn’t think athletes will make college decisions based on who offers the biggest cost of attendance stipend, Nick Saban begs to differ, particularly when you consider the discrepancy between the $5,586 that Auburn will offer and the $2,892 that Alabama has set aside.
The difference between Auburn and Alabama is indeed a head scratcher when you consider they are both state schools, neither in a major metropolitan area and separated only by 160 miles. Would Auburn exploit the more than $2,500 difference on the recruiting trail.
You might think so if you heard what Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said last week at the SEC Spring Meetings in Destin.
“At Auburn, we are going to have the best student-athlete experience in the nation,” Jacobs told AL.com. “We are going to do whatever we can within the rules to provide the best for our student-athletes.”
You can translate that to mean, “You betcha we’re going to let kids know they get a better financial deal coming to Auburn than they offer at Alabama or other schools in the SEC.”
And consider Starkville, which has the lowest cost of living of any college town in the SEC, and Mississippi State, which has set $5,126 as its cost of attendance. Because of its rural location and lack of population, Mississippi State tends to attract kids who are from small towns and small high schools. It doesn’t take a vivid imagination to consider the possibility that MSU coaches might tell a kid how far $5,000 can go in Starkville compared to the $2,706 they’ll pay at Texas A&M or the $2,284 they’ll shell out at Kentucky.
That’s a problem, per Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity.
“It does make a difference to some individuals; to some young men and some young women,” McGarity said. “I would hope the majority of the conference would love to see some consistency in those numbers.”
Georgia will pay in-state athletes $3,221 and out-of-state athletes $3,746, which is middle of the pack in the SEC. McGarity did admit if Georgia were “at the high end, I might not be so concerned about it.”
It would make sense to have some consistency but there are obstacles that stand in the way of a consistent number. If it’s seen as the equivalent of a salary cap, then it plays into the hands of those who are currently battling the NCAA in the courts. If the SEC were to put a top end figure and the rest of the conferences did not, then the SEC would be at a disadvantage.
So, the league will play wait and see for at least a year and hope that cost of attendance doesn’t create a wild west atmosphere on the recruiting trail.
1. Another Progressive commercial with Flo. I would rather be forced to sit in a room for an hour with people running their fingernails down a chalkboard than to endure another one of those commercials.
2. The Gecko and the Caveman. The sell by dates on those two characters for Geico commercials expired long ago.
3. Hearing “they came here to win” by another announcer. What? They came to the ball yard to lose a game?
Should the power conferences set limits on the cost of attendance or should every school decide for itself how much their scholarships are truly worth?
I discovered Marvin Gaye in the summer of 1965 when “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You” rose to #6 on the Billboard charts and got regular air play on WNOE in New Orleans. Marvin had incredible style whether it was singing solo or during his phase when he did duets with Tammi Terrell and Diana Ross among others. He died tragically of a gunshot wound from his father at age 45. His legacy is 67 singles that made it to the Billboard charts and 26 albums including seven that made it to #1 on the R&B charts. Today’s music is “The Very Best of Marvin Gaye.”