Tim Casey / UAA Communications

Softball Gators ready for home opener vs. JU

The top ranked Florida Softball team (4-0) will make their home debut Wednesday night in a double header against Jacksonville University that begins at 5 p.m. at the Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.

The two games on Wednesday will be the only two in Gainesville in the month of February. They follow up a weekend tournament in Tampa where Florida won four games and head coach Tim Walton was pretty pleased all around with the effort.

“I think overall the weekend was good,” Walton said. “I’m very critical and a stickler for the details. I felt like all the things we did… preparation wise, performance wise, pre/postgame, during the game, how we got on the bus, how we got off the bus, how we leave the field, how we got to the field, and all the things I thought were really good. Like I said, my expectations are very high and I felt like our team for the most part, we had 99% of the details were really good. For that, I thought our play was outstanding.”

He likes the chemistry of the team including the three first basemen he utilizes in different scenarios in Kayli Kvistad, Taylor Schwarz, and Janell Wheaton.

“We took the field very well,” Walton said. “We had a (few) defensive changes we made and I thought our overall chemistry on the field was very good. Offensive chemistry, batting in front and behind people was very good. Production wise, our three first basemen made me feel very good about the middle of our lineup and how we are going to score a lot of runs when you lose a Lauren Haeger and the threat she presents in the lineup.”

Florida dominated both offensively and defensively in the tournament outscoring the four opponents 38-1 on the weekend. The Gators got stellar pitching from junior Delanie Gourley, sophomore Aleshia Ocasio, and freshman Kelly Barnhill. The Gators became the first defending national championship team in the NCAA to shutout their first three opponents of the season since Arizona in 1992.

“I thought Delaney was good the first day, not great,” Walton said. “On Sunday I thought she was great. She was really masterful in some of the things she did. She came into a tough situation with bases loaded and got out of there really well just seeing that kind of pressure. She came into a 2-0 count and got to a 3-0 count, and just really kind of set the tone for us. For that I was pleased.

“Aleshia pitched very well. (She had) a couple of mistakes, but nothing that really cost her.”

Barnhill was responsible for the shutout win over #2 Michigan on Saturday. 

Tim Casey / UAA Communications
  “Kelly was good, as easy as it’s said that she got into trouble on Sunday, I think she got into her own trouble. I think that is something we can learn how to control and manage. The expectations for a kid like Kelly Barnhill, not only for herself, but for everyone that knows her, her family, and her teammates, coming in with those kinds of accolades, the pressure is on. She went out and pitched a really nice game against Michigan and I am proud of her.”

“I feel like her matchup against them is really good. She does change speeds, and her spin is really good. They hit a couple of balls that we made nice plays on. I thought she might give up a few more hits and maybe she would give up a couple of runs, but I was confident going in.

“They are a good hitting team. That is the thing that goes unnoticed when you watch a team like Michigan. We faced them and shut them out, but nobody else did. They were scoring 15 runs, 12 runs… they score a ton of runs. You want to talk about a veteran team? That is about as veteran of an offense as you will find in the country.”

Fellow freshman Amanda Lorenz is tearing it up behind the plate. She’s hitting .500, going 5-10 with a double, five RBI, and SEC-leading nine runs scored.

“The first game I think she walked her first at bat, walked two times on Friday, and then on Saturday she came out and really set the tone for us,” Walton said of Lorenz. “She hit a laser up the middle on a good count and then her second at bat she hit the gap, then her third at bat she hit a rocket up the middle. It really didn’t stop going after that.

“Everybody that has played with her and against her knows Amanda Lorenz. She was batting leadoff and now batting three for us. She’s a professional hitter. She knows how to hit the ball to all fields. The best ball she hit all weekend she hit about 225 feet to straight away center because USF is a 230 center field ball park. She hit that ball great, it had great spin and it was right on time. She gets under that a little bit more and she probably hits it 250. It was a really good swing.

Sophomore Janell Wheaton also provided some nice offensive spark. She batted .500 on the weekend with a home run and nine RBI.

Senior Taylore Fuller is hitting .571 with four runs scored and four RBI. She also has been hit by three pitches and walked five times with an on base percentage of .800.

With all the hitting and offense, the Gator defense is tops by far in the SEC right now after four games with its .989 fielding percentage and just one error allowed. A big part of that has been the move of senior Kelsey Stewart from second base a year ago to short stop this season.

“It’s hard for me to not play her at second base… she is the best in the country at second base,” Walton said of Stewart. “At short stop she was really good. There were a couple of plays that were difficult plays that she made look really easy. A little slapper and she came and got the ball on the short hop. A little blooper over the short stop third base side of the field, she went over and made that play.

“I liked her leadership. she was constantly talking to the pitchers. That was one thing that didn’t change from her moving from second to short. She did a really good job of setting the tone for our defense for the whole weekend.”

Some may want to play up the 8-0 win over the second ranked Wolverines on Saturday. The matchup pitted both teams that played for the national championship a year ago. Walton understands how good Michigan is, doesn’t want to overplay the win, but also understands a win like that can build confidence, especially in some of the young players on the team.

“I think from a confidence standpoint, playing Michigan early and beating Michigan sets a nice tone for what we do this week in practice,” Walton said. “I think it does a lot for your confidence, but everyone kind of understands about where we’re at, that every week is going to be a new week, and that we’re going to constantly grow and get better and constantly improve.

“We’ll have bad games, or bad at bats, or bad pitches that we throw. I think just being able to go out and play a game with a couple of new players and get them to have confidence is one of the biggest advantages of playing good competition at the beginning of the season is that you gain confidence by going out there and feeling like you belong and feeling like you can contribute.

On Wednesday, the undefeated Gators match up against the Dolphins twice, a team they have never lost to having a 14-0 record with Walton the skipper for 11 of those wins.  Walton says he and his team are happy to be home for the first time this season.

“It’s like another first game,” he said with a smile. “You play four games this weekend, then come back and play here… the only two games we will play in February at home. We’ll have another first game back here in March. So yes it is exciting.

“I look out here today and see the stripes on the grass. You can feel the opening day is getting ready to happen, it’s a cool feeling. The girls get to change in their locker room and the pre-game meals. They get to run out of the dugout on their own home field. There is a sense of pride in that and it just feels really good.” 

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