SOFTBALL: Butler Off To Hot Start For Gators

It is pick your poison at the top of Florida's softball lineup. Opponents quite naturally want to avoid giving Lindsey Cameron anything good to hit. After all, she holds Florida's career home run record, but behind her in the batting order is Kristen Butler, who has developed into a weapon as lethal as her more publicized teammate. During the GRU Classic over the weekend, Butler hit one home run on each day of the tournament, helping the Gators to a 4-2 record.

Cameron is off to a great start for the Gators with four home runs in Florida's 12 games as the leadoff hitter but Butler has prospered hitting second in the lineup. She is leading the team in batting average (.367), HR's (6), RBI's (14), slugging percentage (.967), and on-base percentage (.486). During the GRU Classic she racked up a .400 batting average, and accounted for 12 of the Gators 29 runs. Butler says her early season success is not because of anything physical but more because of a changed mental outlook.

"I think my mental approach at the plate is a little bit better than it has been in the past," she said. "And that makes a huge difference in everything, and you know, my team's making me a lot better this year. We have better hitters all around on this team this year, and when you have a whole team pushing you, you're bound to do better."

Part of her improvement can be attributed to playing for a Florida team in the Canada Cup tournament back during the summer. The Canada Cup is a prestigious international fastpitch tournament which annually brings in some of the world's top teams and players. Playing with and against some of the best in the world increased her confidence and left her with a real sense of pride and achievement.

"Playing on the international level was an unbelievable experience," she said. "It's something that I will never ever forget and that if I have the chance again to do someday, I'd do it in a heartbeat."

She has a real comfort level with her teammates and she feels that has contributed to her good start to the 2006 season. She has close relationships with her fellow seniors and returning players from last year's team but she also feels the entire team has benefited from a very mature group of freshmen.

"[Our group] has played together for about three to four years now," she said, "and we've learned each other's styles and what we tend to do over those years, and for example the two freshmen pitchers coming in, Lindsay Littlejohn and Stacey Nelson --- they've both had great success in their high school careers so they're coming in and playing more like they're juniors and seniors. They're not pitching like freshmen. They're pitching like they've been here for a while, and I think that helps us older guys out a lot."

Coach Tim Walton is extremely pleased with Butler's performance early on in the season. He believes she's stepping up and taking on one of the leadership roles that Florida needs for this team to be successful.

"She's our field general," he said. "She's the one that collectively touches the ball every pitch, and so with her maturity, and probably with the exception of our first home game against South Florida and our first away game, she's been very, very, very good. And I mean good as overall --- mentally, physically --- she's been ready to play. "The first two games you could definitely tell she was a little bit nervous, and as a senior you're going to be nervous NOT because you're not used to things, but out of anxiety. Hey this is your last first game of the season. This is your last first home game. So those are the kind of things that you as a coach expect. And the way she's playing right now ... I expect that."

Coach Walton also feels like Butler's recent streak offensively is not a fluke or hot streak, but that she's only going to get better.

"She can improve for sure," he said. "We're trying to eliminate some of the wasted at bats at times so she'll improve. I was pleased to see her have good at bats against the pitchers from Michigan. That's a GOOD sign for us when she's hitting that kind of caliber of pitching. I think that's going to be some good things for us in the future. But I anticipate her to get better, and as the three, four, five and six improve their hitting too, it will definitely take a little bit of the pressure off Cameron and Butler."

For most of these girls, unfortunately, softball ends at the college level. Many of them will never play again. For the extremely fortunate few that have the talent to take it to the next level, the opportunity to play softball professionally does exist. National Pro Fastpitch is a seven team league that offers the rare opportunity to play pro ball after college. Kristen Butler hopes to become one of those select few that make a run at the pros.

"I would love to play pro ball, you know, if the opportunity comes knocking," Butler said. "We'll have to kinda wait to see how the season plays out and see how the team does. With the team's success, the individual success will come. Being the seniors, we're really focusing on the team doing well, and then the other accolades are going to come individually as well."

If pro ball never pans out, however, Butler wants to coach.

"You know, I'd love to coach obviously as a Gator," she said, "but I'm looking to Coach at the D1 level and keep going from there."

Butler's performance early on this year as the team's "field general" as well as her heavy hitting at the plate has gotten the Gators off to a good start against top competition. If she can maintain this pace as the season goes along, she might just open some doors for a future that includes softball.

"I've been working hard, and I'm just really glad it's paying off," she said.

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