Gator Softball Has One More Step

In the last three years, the Gator Softball program has taken a major step each season. Two years ago the Gators advanced to the NCAA Super Regional. Last year they hosted and won a Super Regional to earn the school's first trip to the College World Series.

This year the Gators won three straight in Oklahoma City to reach the finals of the series. All that's left is to win it all, and don't bet against that happening. Tim Walton has this program up there with the best in the country and despite losing an outstanding senior class the Gators will be loaded again in 2010.

I got to spend some time with Walton and seniors Stacey Nelson and Kristina Hilberth Wednesday. We taped interviews with all three for an upcoming special edition of GatorZone that will air on Sun Sports later this month. As disappointed as they were not to bring home the NCAA Championship trophy; I came away convinced they were more upset about not getting to play together any more. The senior class, featuring those two along with Ali Gardiner and Kim Waleszonia won 226 games in their four seasons and brought the program to the top of collegiate softball.

Nelson will leave with just about every meaningful record at Florida. Her 136 wins, 18 saves, 60 shutouts and 1,116 strikeouts are all numbers that may never be seriously challenged. In the last two seasons Nelson was a mind-numbing 88-10.

Hilberth toiled in relative anonymity behind the plate, but she started almost 200 games and raised her average from .273 as a junior to .386 this year.

Waleszonia missed 30 games due to an injury but still leaves as Florida's career record holder in hits (272), runs (166), triples (17) and stolen bases (65). While Nelson's records appears safe, sophomore Aja Paculba is on pace to break all of Waleszonia's marks in the next two years.

Gardiner joined the Gators in 2007 after a year as UNC-Wilmington. She hit a school single season record .407 last year, but no one will remember her for that. She made the last out in Oklahoma City, but no one will remember her for that either. No, she'll forever be known for the last inning, last strike grand slam that sent the Gators into the College World Series finals.

The Gators will also say goodbye to three role players. Brooke Johnson was mostly a pinch runner and LF defensive substitute while LeNet Franklin and Danyell Hines were almost exclusively pinch runners.

Despite those significant departures, Florida looks to be loaded for another big season in 2010. We'll take an in-depth look at what next year's team will look like next week. Until then, appreciate the best two-year run in Florida Softball history and the remarkable young women who made it happen.

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