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Saturday May 30, 2015 Youth is being served at WCWS ... and serving

Updated: 11:46pm, May 30

DeWitt

Freshman Nicole DeWitt is all smiles after hitting her solo homer in Friday night's 4-0 defeat of LSU that helped keep the Gators unbeaten in the Women's College World Series.


OKLAHOMA CITY --  After top-seeded Florida had just shucked her hot-hitting LSU squad into the Women’s College World Series elimination bracket with a 4-0 defeat, Tigers coach Beth Torina was both gracious and complimentary of the Gators and their do-it-all senior star Lauren Haeger.

“It seems like Florida has a senior pitcher that steps up this time of year every year and really does a great job for them,” said Torina, no doubt harkening back to last year’s stunning postseason run to the program’s first NCAA title led by Hannah Rogers. “Florida understands how to win this time of year. We’re still young. We have a lot of young kids.”

That may be true of the Tigers, as well a handful of other teams at Hall of Fame Stadium this week that weren’t fortunate enough to return a national-championship roster that lost just two starters.

But the Gators aren’t 57-6 and one win shy of reaching the best-of-three WCWS title series just because of Haeger and her fellow veterans. Youth is being served for the Gators, no doubt, but it’s also providing a service.

UF won the regular-season Southeastern Conference title with a freshman, 17-game winner Aleshia Ocasio, as a regular in the circle. Nicole DeWitt, a freshman outfielder, started 49 games, hit .345 and was sixth on the team with 38 runs scored. Kayli Kvistad, another rookie, clubbed six homers, knocked in another 36 runs and, like DeWitt, has left her mark on Florida’s latest charge through the WCWS bracket.

Clearly, the stage is not too big for these WCWS first-timers, even though the experience is nothing like they’ve dealt with before. More fun is on the way Sunday when UF takes on either UCLA or Auburn with the winner moving into the finals.

“You have to soak it in,” DeWitt, the Californian, said of the carnival-like World Series environment. “There are people leaning over the fence giving you high-fives. I’ve never seen that before. All these people are here for you. It’s like, wow, amazing. Such a great feeling. ... I can’t say I’m used to it, but you have to do what you know how to do.”

Just play.

“It’s just softball,” she said.

True that.

DeWitt fly

 DeWitt makes a play in the outfield Thursday (above) against Tennessee and is all smiles (below) as she rounds third and fist-bumps Coach Tim Walton after smashing her home run vs LSU.

DeWitt rounding third

 

“You would love to have veterans who have been there and done that, but you need the youthful experience to keep things exciting and keep things moving,” Coach Tim Walton said Saturday, as UF reaped the benefits of a two wins to open the WCWS with the accompanying day off. “You just can’t have a bunch of veterans all the time. At some point, it gets stale. I think young players allow you to challenge the returning players to stay on top of their game. Plus, you have to learn from somebody.”

Haeger, Kelsey Stewart, Aubree Munro and company have done their part, but Florida’s freshman came ready for prime time. Because Haeger has been so dominant in the postseason (6-0, 0.33 ERA), Ocasio has not been needed since her 6-0 shutout win against Florida A&M that opened NCAA play.

KvistadKvistad, from Lake City, Fla., broke out of a month-long hitting slump in the Super Regional against Kentucky with a bases-clearing double in the first inning of Game 1. She then came to OKC and in her big-stage debut smashed a towering home run (left) into the right field seats in her second World Series at-bat, to give UF a 3-0 lead against Tennessee.

“It was really exciting,” she said. “I was looking for a pitch to hit and working on being on time and to help my team out.”

And then there was DeWitt.

UF held that 3-0 lead against the Volunteers in the fourth inning Thursday. With a runner on first, Meghan Gregg crushed a ball to deep left field that DeWitt retreated on and gloved inches before the wall to rob Gregg of extra bases. The next batter, Megan Geer, homered to make the score 3-2, but DeWitt’s defense minimized the damage and the Gators went on to win 7-2.

Then came Saturday night against LSU. With no score, DeWitt led off the top of the fifth with a slap single just out of the infield and into center. That set the table for Haeger to launch her second homer in as many nights to give the Gators a 2-0 lead.

The next inning, Munro led off with a double, but the Gators ran themselves out of a potential threat when Stewart hit into a third-to-first-to-third double play. That cleared the bases. LSU’s fans cheered the rally kill.

Then DeWitt homered to right. Just her second of the year. As she rounded first, DeWitt emphatically pumped her first.

This time, the Gators' fans cheered.

“It was just the greatest feeling I’ve ever had,” she said.

Chances are, she has more to come. Kvistad and Osasio, too. The youngsters have plenty of playing left to do. The next few days and beyond.

Thursday May 28, 2015 Billy D pops in for a pep talk

Updated: 8:28pm, May 28

Billy D and softball Gators

Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan poses with the UF softball team after an improtu visit from the former Gators basketball coach Wednesday on the eve of the team's opener in Women's College World Series. 

 

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Just before 7 o’clock Wednesday night, Tim Walton ducked out of a post-dinner meeting with his Florida softball team for a few minutes.

When he came back, Walton announced to his players that someone was there to speak with them.

In walked Billy Donovan.

"I have always had so much respect with the way Billy runs his program and his teams, and the message he’s always relayed to his fellow coaches and players," Walton said later. "He's someone I have always leaned on, whether talking about my team or talking about me personally. That’s why I reached out to him."

To these Gator girls, Donovan is still their coach, though he didn’t have to come very far to get to their headquarters for 2015 Women’s College World Series; just a few blocks from the hotel where he’s been holed up the last three weeks since being named head coach of the NBA Oklahoma City Thunder.

Donovan, of course, knows a little something about chasing a second straight national championship, which the UF women are doing. He won two in a row in 2006 and '07. So on the eve of the softball Gators' opening WCWS game -- top-seeded Florida (55-6) faces Tennessee (47-15) Thursday at noon -- Donovan had some words of advice as they sat mesmerized before the future Hall-of-Famer.

He told them how he watched last year’s run to the program’s first NCAA title and was floored by what he called “one of the most unbelievable examples of teamwork and unselfishness” he’d ever seen.

“Where is my girl Lauren?” Donovan asked.

That, of course, would be senior Lauren Haeger, the recently crowned NCAA Player of the Year. She was in the back of the room and raised her hand.

In Game 2 of UF’s championship series against Alabama last year, Walton made the risky decision not to start ace Hannah Rogers, who had stormed to seven postseason wins, including four in the WCWS. Instead, Walton looked to Haeger. He wanted to throw the Crimson Tide a curve, in addition to giving Rogers some rest.

Walton, in fact, actually consulted Donovan on his decision at the time. Donovan's wisdom: As long as your team believes in you, they'll be fine.

But the analysts on ESPN commenced their second-guessing. So did the dime-store experts on Twitter as the game played out and the Gators fell behind early. 

Rogers, though, screamed and cheered for Haeger from the dugout; and screamed and cheered for freshman Delanie Gourley, who Walton summoned first for relief.

It was a scene Donovan recalled watching last year, alongside his wife, marveling at how Rogers handled the decision -- and also how Rogers eventually entered the game in the sixth inning and closed out the night with a save.

And a championship.

“It was special. Someone actually gave themselves up for the best of the team,” Donovan told the players. “It’s very easy to let ego get involved when you’re in those situations. I thought it was really, really special. I was so proud how Hannah handled herself on TV and how much confidence she had in you, Lauren, and how much confidence she had in her coach.”

Then he turned to this current chase for a championship and told the Gators to understand some things going in:

* You're not defending anything. “Last year’s national championship is over and done with. It’s been accomplished, it’s in the record books and nobody is taking that away from you. You’re going to hear those words, but there is no defending. This is a new year, with a new challenge, new opponent.

* Everyone be ready. “You have to understand that through scouting and preparation, some of the people on this team that have been an integral part of this team may get taken out of games through coaching and through scouting. Somebody is going to have to step up. I would just tell you and warn you that regardless of what your role is it is incredibly vital that you stay ready. There is going to be an opportunity -- for somebody -- that is going to knock. When it’s not the ‘stars,’ it’s going to be someone else." A cited an example: the New England Patriots. "Whoever thought a sixth-round draft pick whose name no one even knew would make an interception to seal the Super Bowl?”

* Don’t believe that the path to last year’s title is the same as this one; expect the unexpected. “You guys are climbing a mountain and you have to understand that things are going to happen and you’re going to say, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect this.’ ... I would say you have a perfect example of expecting the unexpected right here in this room. When Coach decided last year to start Lauren, [Alabama wasn’t] ready for it. Don’t get caught like that. Whatever is thrown at you, handle it as a group. It’s not a surprise.”

He thanked them and left them with this.

“I’ll be watching.”

The talk lasted maybe seven minutes, but Walton could not have been more thrilled with the message. Several of his players were ready to take the field then and there.

"If anybody wasn't prepared, they went back to their rooms to get prepared," Walton said. "If anyone didn't think they had a huge role in winning our next game, they do now. That’s the secret to coaching; to get everyone to buy into their role and everyone to overachieve. That was his message. Everyone needs to do their part."

Donovan stayed for a nice team picture and left with some well-wishers for his new challenge. A few players chased him into the lobby for a couple more photos. 

“I love him so much,” All-America second baseman Kelsey Stewart said. “That was the biggest and best surprise.”

Tuesday May 26, 2015 Gators pitchers -- all of them -- on alert for WCWS

Updated: 10:14am, May 27

Though senior star Lauren Haeger has carried the Gators through the first five NCAA Tournament games, UF coach Tim Walton and pitching coach Jennifer Rocha (both above) know they'll need all three of their pitchers at the College World Series. UF takes on Tennessee in the WCWS opener Thursday at noon. (Photo: Jim Burgess)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In the wake of his program’s latest Super Regional clincher Sunday, Florida coach Tim Walton made a mental note during his post-game press conference to speak with freshman pitcher Alesha Ocasio in the locker room.

Walton, it seemed, did not expect to use just one pitcher in the Super. Not that he was complaining, mind you. Not with the way senior Lauren Haeger was spinning it from the circle.

His message to Ocasio, as well as sophomore Delanie Gourley, was simple. 

“We’re going to need you,” Walton send.

In Oklahoma City, that is.

Five NCAA Tournament games so far, five shutouts. Four of those came from Haeger, who lowered her season ERA to 1.24 while improving to 28-1 on the season. The other came courtesy of Ocasio. Gourley didn’t take the mound in the regional or Super Regional.

Hard to second guess 34 innings pitched and a collective 0.00 ERA between those two, but Walton’s point is well taken. The Gators may be the top seed in the Women’s College World Series -- which opens Thursday when UF (55-6) takes on Tennessee (47-15) at noon from Hall of Fame Stadium -- but at some point (or points) they’re going to need all three of their pitchers.

“We’re a staff,” Haeger said of Ocasio and Gourley. “They’re ready to go and I’m excited to see them do their thing out there too.”

Don’t expect Walton to tip his hand regarding his WCWS Game 1 starter the next couple days, but he’ll be hard-pressed to bypass Haeger, his superstar and one of three candidates for NCAA Player of the Year, especially after three days of rest and the importance that comes with winning that first game (and avoiding the elimination bracket).

So Walton will talk among his coaching staff (in particular, pitching coach Jennifer Rocha) and come up with a plan. And then he’ll have a chat with his pitchers.

A candid one.

One of the things Walton has come to appreciate about this team over the season’s long haul is the trust that’s been built. He’s had to make some tough decisions along the way. Whether platooning three players at first base, a couple more at catcher, maneuvering a handful of players in the outfield or going with freshmen over veteran upperclassmen, Walton has been able to manage this group directly and honestly.

Collectively, the Gators have responded.

Case in point: Late in Sunday’s game against Kentucky, Walton paid Haeger a visit to the circle. He wondered if a second straight day in the brutal mid-day Florida sun was taking its toll on his standout.  

“I want you to finish the game, but how much more you got?” he asked.

Haeger: “I feel good.”

In past visits, she’d come clean if her pitches weren’t breaking and advised her coach to make a change. Walton told that story after Sunday's game.

“No egos involved,” Walton said. “Just a big, strong trust.”

The Gators will place their trust in him again this week. And why not? Walton’s only won 10 straight NCAA tournament games, dating back to last year’s sweep through the WCWS. The won the Southeastern Conference regular-season title in a league that has five of the eight spots in Oklahoma City.

Yeah. To reiterate, he’s going to need his pitchers.

Heck, even Hannah Rogers needed a break in her historic rampage to a national title last year.

“I can’t see Lauren being able to effectively pitch all the way through,” Walton said. “It’s definitely something in our mindset, how we keep this pitching staff involved. It’s like I told Delanie last year, ‘I plan to go back to the College World Series, so you need to go out there and toe that rubber.’ We’re going to need to Ocasio and Gourley, moving forward.”

 Kvistad

Freshman Kayli Kvistad blasts a first-inning, three-run double Saturday that set the tone for a 7-0 win in Game 1 of UF's Super Regional series against Kentucky at Pressly Stadium.


GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Nearly 40 games into her collegiate career, Florida’s big-swinging freshman first baseman Kayli Kvistad was hitting .319 and already had six games with at least three RBI.

But then came the next 17 games, when Kvistad went into a 2-for-29 tailspin, with her average dipping to .242.

So into the cages she went with her coaches, who happened to be armed a few gadgets. Coach Tim Walton could sense Kvistad was stepping to the plate and trying to murder the ball, instead of putting a good, clean swing on it. Using a device that measures bat speed, Walton showed his rookie that her hardest swings -- get this -- were actually 5 to 7 mph slower than her smooth and balanced ones.

“You can tell them all you want,” Walton said earlier this week in addressing his hands-on work with Kvistad. “But when you show them with a little bit of technology, it makes a big difference.”

It did Saturday in NCAA Super Regional play.

Kvistad stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first inning against Kentucky, after both senior sluggers Lauren Haeger and Bailey Castro had struck out with runners at second and third. After Taylore Fuller was plunked on the wrist by Wildcats pitcher Kelsey Nunley, the bases were loaded for a Kvistad; she of just two hits in the last 42 days and none over the last nine games.

Kvistad That’s when Kvistad (right) laid a textbook swing on a 2-2 pitch from one of the toughest, most battle-tested pitchers in the Southeastern Conference, lacing a line drive over UK's Breanne Ray in right field for a bases-clearing double.

Let's hear it for technology.

“I worry about my next at-bat and not about what’s happened in the past,” she said.

Good thing. Kvistad’s teammates were certainly fired up on her behalf, as her three RBI made for a big inning and paved the way for a 7-0 win in Game 1 of the best-of-three Super Regional. Haeger, one of three finalists for NCAA Player of the Year, pitched a two-hit shutout to run her record to a dazzling 27-1 and also hit a solo home run. Kirsti Merritt had a two-run shot that broke a homerless streak for the junior center fielder that dated to March 27.

The Gators (54-6) have now won all four of their NCAA Tournament games by shutout (Haeger with three of them) and now stand 14-1 collectively in NCAA play the last two seasons, with opponents going scoreless in 12 of them.

But Saturday's three extra base hits nearly matched the four UF tallied in winnings its three regional games last week and that certainly put a smile on Walton's face.

Especially after Kvistad got things going.

“I was so happy to see her step up like that,” Haeger said.

When the Gators jump on a team 4-0 in the first, they’re going to be very difficult to beat, given their pitching and defense.

“It was about setting the tone early,” Walton said. “A freshman, getting her first postseason hit and RBI -- and none bigger than that. We really had to have that, especially against Kelsey Nunley.”

That’s because after the first, Nunley set down Florida’s next 10 hitters, before giving way Meagan Prince, who set down the three Gators she faced, before giving way to Erin Rethlake, who faced three UF hitters and was rocked by Merritt and company for three runs before Nunley was summoned back to the circle down 7-0.

But really, the damage was done much earlier.

“That was a tough first inning,” said Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson, who along with the Wildcats (32-25) thought she’d gotten out of the inning at 1-0 on a groundout by Kvistad, but the home plate umpire ruled the ball hit the batter’s foot for a foul. “That [hit] really put us in a hole. [Fall behind like] that against Haeger, arguably the best player in college softball, it’s going to be a tough day.”

The goal for the Gators, of course, is to make Sunday the really tough day for the Cats; as in elimination day. UF will have two games to win one, with the survivor advancing to Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City. Florida has gone seven of the last eight years.

Kvistad is one of several Gators, obviously, who has yet to get there. On Saturday, she not only looked like she wanted to get there, but like she belonged there.

“She looked very settled and comfortable,” Walton said.

UF is 13-1 all-time in home Super Regional games, so maybe she’s settling in with the rest of them.

Tuesday May 19, 2015 White likes his incoming freshman class

Updated: 4:47pm, May 19

KeVaughn Allen

Arkansas Gatorade Player of the Year KeVaughn Allen, who led his high school team to a third straight state championship, was sold on the recruiting re-pitch by new UF basketball coach Michael White. [Photo courtesy of The Arkansas Press-Democrat]

 

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Each time Michael White spoke to KeVaughn Allen the conversations became more and more promising. That was a very good sign.

When White was named the new Florida basketball coach nearly two weeks ago, he basically had to re-recruit the class of four incoming Gators, headlined by Allen. Each of the prospects signed up to play for Billy Donovan and the previous staff, so White had some selling to do.

Of himself, his assistants and how he was going to play.

“But they were all fond very fond of the University of Florida,” said White, who ultimately kept to three of the four players signed by the previous staff for the 2015-16 season. “Fast-tracking a relationship was of the utmost importance with all these guys, just to give us a chance.”

The 6-foot-3, 170-pound Allen led North Little Rock to a third straight Class 7A Arkansas state championship, scoring 28 points in the title game. Donovan’s departure put Allen on the fence, amid reports (both in Arkansas and from national college basketball writers) that he would join Atlanta power forward Noah Dickerson and ask out of his UF national letter of intent.

But White, who won 101 games in four seasons as head coach at Louisiana Tech, was undeterred. White travel to Arkansas and met with Allen, showing him video of the up-tempo, pressure-defense style he’s bringing to Florida. The coach followed up those meetings with phone calls, text messages and more emailed videos. With each conversation and exchange of information, the odds of keeping Allen solid to the Gators got better.

For context, those odds -- in the wake of Donovan’s departure -- probably started at 40-60, but slowly began tipping in Florida’s favor the more White was injected into the equation.

50-50 ... 60-40 ... 70-30   

Then came Monday’s conversation.

“I’m about 90-10, Coach,” Allen told White.

Said White: “Can we get you to 95?”

“Yes.”

“Well then, how ‘bout 100?”

Done.

When Allen, who averaged 25.2 points 6.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 3.1 steals per game as a senior, arrives for the Summer B semester, he’ll step into a backcourt fray that already includes junior Kasey Hill and sophomore Chris Chiozza, both of whom either started or logged significant minutes last season, redshirt freshman Brandone Francis (who sat out last season while gaining academic eligibility) and fourth-year junior swingman DeVon Walker (who missed last season with a knee injury).

“KeVaughn is a big-time athlete and a bit-time competitor,” White said. “He can really score and handle the ball, but he’s also a winner. I’m excited to coach him.”

Allen’s freshman class also includes 6-9, 190-pound Kevarrius Hayes, by way of Live Oak (Fla.), who averaged close to 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, along with Keith Stone, a 6-7, 240-pound combo forward from Deerfield Beach (Fla.) Zion Lutheran, who’s received praise on the club circuit for nice big man’s touch from the outside.

White on Hayes: “He’s a long athlete with a good motor and great work ethic. He was really excited to be a Gator, being from right down the road. I think his ability to run and jump -- complimenting his length -- make him a really good fit for what we’re trying to do here, schematically. Especially on defense.”

White on Stone: “Offensively, he’s a fit. He’s very talented. Great ball skills and a nice stroke for a kid his size. What I really like about him is he loves the game, is a gym rat, and is excited to be a Gator.”

Saturday May 16, 2015 UF's big bats answer Walton's challenge

Updated: 9:44pm, May 16

“I’d like to see the Kirsti Merritts, the Bailey Castros, Lauren Haegers and Taylore Fullers, just for them to be RBI-getters. Get out there and drive balls in the gap. That’s what they’re good at.” -- Florida softball coach Tim Walton after Friday night's NCAA game.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- To understand top-seeded Florida’s performance in Saturday’s second-round NCAA Regional game you have to go back to Friday night’s first-round game.

Walton And the above quote from the Gators coach.

Tim Walton (left) had watched four of his most reliable upperclassmen and best run-producing hitters combine to go 4-for-34 over the previous four games, with UF going just 2-2 in those outings. Walton’s remarks came after the Gators had defeated Florida A&M 6-0, an outcome minus any real mashing from players he needs making big-time contact, especially this time of year.

 

Now, fast-forward to Saturday’s date against Hofstra, champions of the Colonial Athletic Association, winners of 12 of its last 13 games, ranked 13th nationally in RPI, and armed with a pair of pretty good pitchers.

Junior Kirsti Merrit, the second batter in UF's first inning, smoked a double off the left field wall. The next hitter, senior Lauren Haeger, bounced a RBI-single into left field. After senior Bailey Castro popped out (more on her later) and freshman Nicole DeWitt reached on an infield single, junior Taylore Fuller parked a two-out, two-strike pitch over the fence in left-center and just like that the Gators were up by four runs.

About two hours later, Haeger polished off yet another outstanding pitching performance with a 7-0 shutout victory that moved UF (52-6) into Sunday’s championship bracket against Florida Atlantic (39-18-1), where one win will bring another home Super Regional to Pressly Stadium next weekend.

Welcome back, Gator bats.

Bailey

Senior Bailey Castro is all smiles after smashing a solo homer Saturday in the sixth inning to cap UF's 7-0 defeat of Hofstra in second-round NCAA Tournament play. [Photo by Jim Burgess]


“When we get hit, we come back and hit harder,” Fuller said after crushing her 12th homer and pushing her season’s RBI total to 51, second-best on the team. “If someone is going to take a shot at us or criticize what we’re doing, we’re going to come back and prove you wrong. We’re going to show we are the hitters who can produce runs for our team.”

The one who made issue of the missing bats, of course, was Walton, who has proven season after season to be masterful when it comes to pushing the right buttons with his players.

The Gators, with the bulk of their roster back from last season’s first NCAA championship squad, are coming off another Southeastern Conference regular-season title and just happened to find themselves in a lull at a time of year where’s lulls can end a season.

He made a few remarks that clearly caught a few players’ attention. About 18 hours later, he walked off the field Saturday after watching his team spread around 15 hits, most of good, solid contact. Two came from Merritt, three from Haeger, two more from Fuller, and one from Castro, who lashed a solo home run in the sixth inning, just for good measure.

“Being 3-4-5 hitters, the [No. ] 6 hitter, we are the RBI producers,” said Castro, now with a team-best 16 homers. “We were struggling a little bit. We talked this morning. Postseason [can come down to] one run at a point of the game, so whatever it takes. Today we just tried to step it up. The bulk of the lineup just tried to put better swings on better pitches.”

That’s exactly what Walton talked about in his post-game media chat Friday (and presumably again with his players Saturday morning). Against the Pride, the Gators walked to the plate and, basically on cue, answered his challenge.

“Really, really happy with the way we scored five runs with two outs. That’s the nature of the postseason. You’re going to have to do a good job of getting hits with two strikes and two outs,” said Walton, whose club was 1-for-12 versus FAMU with runners in scoring position, but went 2-for-2 in that situation in the first inning alone, with Fuller’s homer the big blow. “If you had a camera on me, I was pretty excited about that hit.”

We didn’t have a camera on him, but if we did it would have revealed a very animated fist pump.

Walton’s words worked.

They usually do.

Walton and Stewart

UF coach Tim Walton is looking for someone other than Kelsey Stewart (right) to start chipping in with some big hits. Stewart had a triple -- one of just two extra-base hits for the top-ranked Gators -- to lead off Florida's first inning in Friday night's 6-0 defeat of Florida A&M in opening-round NCAA Tournament play.


GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Taylor Schwarz had just popped to first base to end the fifth inning Friday night, but her host Florida Gators were still shutting out Florida A&M in first-round play of the NCAA Tournament.

The Rattlers, in fact, had yet to register a hit.

In the FAMU dugout, that’s when outfielder Amanda Weaver gathered her team and asked a question.

“Do you understand what just happened?”

They didn’t, but Weaver, the senior, was delighted to enlighten them. The last four times the Rattlers had faced the Gators -- three of those with Weaver in the lineup -- UF won 12-0 in a run-rule shortened five innings, 20-2 in five innings, 9-0 in five innings and by an 8-0 count in the NCAA Tournament in five innings just last year.

But this game was going to sixth inning ... and actually made it to the seventh.

Top-seeded UF went on to shut out FAMU 6-0 behind a masterful one-hitter by freshman Aleshia Ocasio, who tied a school record with 17 strikeouts. The first hit she allowed came with two outs in the seventh -- a single down the right-field line by none other than Weaver -- in her debut NCAA game.

She was terrific.

But on a night when most filed into Pressly Stadium thinking they’d see a fireworks show crammed into five innings, the Gators (51-6) managed just eight hits and only two for extra bases. Two-time All-America second baseman Kelsey Stewart led off the UF first with a triple and helped stake Florida to a 2-0 lead, but after that the best the Gators could do was a run each in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth.

Truth be told, Stewart is the lone Gator hitting with any consistency of late, with the team having scored just one run its Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinal loss to Tennessee and only two in a regular-season ending defeat at Missouri. Yes, the Gators did pound South Carolina 10-1 to open SEC Tourney play, but of their nine hits Stewart had four (and two of the three for extra bases).

Something is missing from this team right now and the reason may be as simple as going seven days since the last game.

“Offensively, we did what we needed to do,” UF coach Tim Walton said. “We left some runners in scoring position, had some throw-away at-bats, but we hadn’t played in a week.”

UF will face a pretty decent Hofstra (38-12-1) team in Saturday’s winner’s bracket game, so it’s time to liven things up at the plate. Walton was pretty specific about where he’d prefer the punch, too.

“I’d like to see the Kirsti Merritts, the Bailey Castros, Lauren Haegers and Taylore Fullers, just for them to be RBI-getters,” Walton said of his best offensive, run-producing hitters not named Stewart. “Get out there and drive balls in the gap. That’s what they’re good at.”

Haeger, the SEC’s career home run leader, is hitless in her last 14 at-bats. She got an RBI Friday, but on a deep groundout between second and short, with Merritt barreling all the way around from second to score.  

That’s not the kind of quality at-bat Walton is looking for right now.

“It’s OK to strike out every now and then with runners in scoring psotion. No problem,” he said. “But we don’t need [Haeger] getting singles and moving runners along when we need RBIs. She knows that. She’s an RBI-getter. That’s what we’re looking for.”

It’s a search that’s been going on for two weeks. In the last four games, the combination of Merritt, Castro, Haeger and Fuller has gone a collective 4-for-34 (that’s an average of .118).

The Gators (especially those Gators) know those numbers need to improve this weekend.

Maybe Friday was just a night to get back to taking live cuts against real-life opposition. NCAA opposition, no less.

“It was about really getting out the kinks,” Stewart said. “Making sure we made good contact, not striking out and being on plane with the ball. We still produced.”

Enough to win fairly easily. Enough to advance, which is the only object this time of year, no matter the foe.

And even if it takes all seven innings.

Tuesday May 12, 2015 Charting the Gators -- Michael White (the player) vs. Florida

Updated: 11:16am, May 12

White, the player CHARTING THE GATORS
(Charting Michael White, the player, actually)

In 1994, Ole Miss signed a stocky, feisty point guard from New Orleans named Michael White. He was 6-foot-1, 180 pounds and had the mentality of a defensive back (sometimes a linebacker). A month into his Rebels career, White was starting for Coach Rob Evans and went on to start 109 of his 117 career games, score 597 points, dish 370 assists, grab 222 rebounds and make 76 3-point shots. He also helped Ole Miss to back-to-back Southeastern Conference West Division titles and reach the NCAA Tournament in 1997, ’98 and ’99 after making the field just once in school history.

Along the way, White faced Florida five times and won three of those games. He was 3-0 against Billy Donovan, the coach he officially replaced Monday.

“That would surprise me, if that’s true,” White said Monday.

Oh, it’s true. We checked to be sure.

Hardcore SEC fans may remember White.

For the rest, here’s a history lesson of his games against the Gators.


Jan. 20, 1996 (Oxford, Miss.)
Florida 59, Ole Miss 55
Recap: The Gators went to the “Tad Pad” in Coach Lon Kruger’s final season and won behind senior forward Brian Thompson’s 14 points and nine rebounds, both career highs. White, a freshman, finished with seven points on 3-for-4 shooting to go with three assists.


March 7, 1996 (New Orleans)
Florida 75, Ole Miss 62
Recap: In opening-round play of the SEC Tournament -- not far from where White was a standout prep player, Jesuit High, which also produced Will Clark, Rusty Staub and Harry Connick Jr. -- the Gators got 22 points and five assists from senior guard Greg Williams and earned the right to bludgeoned in the tournament quarterfinals by eventual national champion Kentucky. White had seven points, but was just 1-for-7 from the floor, with three assists. A week later, Kruger bolted Florida to become head coach at Illinois.


Feb. 23, 1997 (Gainesville, Fla.)
Ole Miss 67, Florida 65
Recap: Guard Joezon Darby hit a 3-pointer with 16.5 seconds left that completed a big comeback for the Rebels and clinched their first West Division crown. The Gators, playing with just six scholarship players in Donovan’s first season, blew an eight-point lead in the final 12 minutes, with guard Keith Carter (17 points) doing most of the damage. UF guard Eddie Shannon’s runner to tie the game with six seconds to go rimmed out. White had four points, four assists and two rebounds in a game attended by just 5,833 at the O’Connell Center.


Jan. 7, 1998 (Oxford, Miss)
Ole Miss 90, Florida 79
Recap: White’s statistical line wasn’t very impressive -- 3 points, 2 assists, 4 fouls -- but it was his defense on Gators star guard Jason Williams that helped fuel the win for the 14th-ranked ranked and surging Rebels. In 23 minutes, White chased and harassed Williams, who came into the game as the SEC’s leading scorer (18.1 ppg) and assist man (7.0 pg) into 6-for-19 shooting from the floor. Though Williams finished with 17 points, he was just 1-for-8 in the first half, two assists and five turnovers. Jason Smith led the Rebels with 20 points and seven steals, as Ole Miss improved to 11-1 for the first time since 1936-37.


Feb. 6, 1999
Ole Miss 79, Florida 68 (Gainesville, Fla.)
Recap: This time, it was the Gators who were surging in Year 3 under Donovan. Winners of 12 straight home games and two days removed from a stunning home upset of defending national champion Kentucky, the Rebels came to town and doused the red-hot Gators behind 20 points from Carter and forward Marcus Hicks. The Gators got off to a slow start for a variety of reasons: forward Brent Wright arrived to the game late due to a funeral; assistant coach Anthony Grant did not come to the game due to a family emergency; forward Mike Miller and guard Kenyan Weaks combined for five first-half minutes due to foul trouble; Donovan was hit with a technical foul when in protesting a call he stepped onto the floor and was barreled over by official Doug Shows, sending both to the floor. “I tried to get in his way,” Donovan said afterward. “[And then] went after him after that pretty good.” The game marked the first time since 1987 UF played before back-to-back home crowds of 12,000-plus at the O'Connell Center. As for White, he went 2-for-2 from the floor and 5-for-7 from the free-throw line for 9 points to go with four assists, three rebounds, two steals and just one turnover.

Monday May 11, 2015 Meet Mike White's basketball staff

Updated: 3:37pm, May 15

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- New Florida basketball coach Michael White, who was introduced Monday as the successor to Billy Donovan, has finalized his staff with all four assistants of his previous staff at Louisiana Tech now on boards with the Gators

The fourth, former Bulldogs associate head coach Dusty May, officially joined UF Thursday when he took himself out of the running to be White's successor back in Ruston. LA Tech players openly campaigned for the popular May to get the job. Instead, he's spent the last two days alongside White and the rest of the new Gators staff working with UF players during individual instruction drills and decided earlier in the day that Florida was where he wanted to be.

Here's an updated version of a story posted earlier this week, with bios of all the new Florida assistants.

This version includes May. 

 

Dusty May DUSTY MAY (Assistant coach)
From: Bloomington, Ind.
School: Indiana (2000)
Age: 38
Background: At LA Tech since 2009, serving alongside White’s predecessor Kerry Rupp, and was elevated to associate head coach for the Bulldogs. ... Before going to Ruston, May spent two seasons at Alabama-Birmingham under Mike Davis, reaching a pair of NITs. He also held staff posts at Murray State and Eastern Michigan. ... May was a manager for four years at Indiana -- all under Coach Bobby Knight -- and assisted with video duties before being elevated to administrative assistant under Davis, who followed Knight at IU.


Nichols DARRIS NICHOLS (Assistant coach)
From: Radford, Va.
School: West Virginia (2008)
Age: 28
Background: Worked one season at LA Tech after jumping to the Bulldogs by way of Wofford, where under Coach Mike Young the Terriers captured the Southern Conference Tournament championship and accompanying automatic NCAA berth. Wofford lost to Michigan in second-round play. ... Nichols coaching career started at Northern Kentucky, part of staff that helped transition the program from Division II into Division I. ... Nichols was a standout point guard at West Virginia under Coach John Belein, totaling 993 points, 399 assists and shooting 37.5 percent from the 3-point range in the Big East Conference, while becoming one of the five winningest players in program history. His Mountaineer teams advanced to an NCAA regional final in 2005 (losing to Louisville), the Sweet 16 in ’06, and captured the NIT championship in ’07.  


Mincy JORDAN MINCY (Assistant coach)
From: Memphis, Tenn.
School: Kent State (2009)
Age: 28
Background: Like Nichols, Mincy was at LA Tech one season, heading there after a season each at Toledo, College of Charleston and and his alma mater of Kent State. At Toledo, Mincy mentored point guard Julius Brown, a first-team All Mid-American Conference selection as the Rockets captured a share of their league title. At CofC, he was part of a staff that upset No. 21 Baylor in the regular season, finished 24-11 and went to the College Basketball Invitational. Mincy was part of a Kent State staff that led the team to a 25-win season and just the second MAC team in 48 years to win-to-back regular-season league titles. The Golden Flashes went to the NIT and reached the quarterfinals (one win shy of Madison Square Garden) with road upsets of Saint Mary’s and Fairfield. ... Mincy played in 135 games at Kent State, more than anyone in program history, and helped lead the team to 93 wins and two NCAA Tournament berths. He left the Golden Flashes as their all-time assists leader and the 2009 MAC Defensive Player of the Year.


Church KYLE CHURCH (Director of Basketball Operations)
From: Charlotte, N.C.
School: UNCC
Age: 26
Background: Held the same post the last two seasons at LA Tech. Former assistant coach at Chipola College in Marianna, Fla., a graduate assistant manager at LA Tech, and graduate assistant at Ole Miss at the end of White’s stint there as an assistant coach. ... Church was a walk-on at UNCC -- he scored his first career points for 49ers when he hit a 3-pointer against Indiana at Assembly Hall -- and was named to the Atlantic 10 Conference honor roll.

Mike White GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Last Monday was Billy Donovan’s farewell University of Florida news conference. 

Today is Michael White's hello news conference.

White, hired Thursday following four seasons at Louisiana Tech, will be introduced by UF athletic directory Jeremy Foley during an 11 a.m. presser in the Gator Room. The event will be televised by the SEC Network and will also streamed live by GatorVision here and on Watch ESPN here.  

The 38-year-old White went 101-40 and won regular-season titles in both Conference-USA (2014 and '15) and the Western Athletic Conference Donovan ('13). His Bulldogs teams were among the nation's leaders in 3-point attempts, turnover margin and points per possession.

White, a four-year starting point guard at Ole Miss during the 1990s, is replacing Donovan, who guided the Gators to 467 wins, six Southeastern Conference championships, 14 NCAA Tournament berths and two national championships over 19 seasons. Donovan resigned 10 days ago to become head coach of the NBA Oklahoma City Thunder.

Monday May 4, 2015 Broadcast info for Billy Donovan's final press conference

Updated: 9:45am, May 4

Billy presser


GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Billy Donovan’s farewell University of Florida news conference is set for 10:30 a.m. Monday.

Live streaming coverage of the event is available here, plus on ESPN News

Donovan, who guided the Gators to two NCAA championships and six Southeastern Eastern Conference titles, stepped down as UF’s coach last week to become head coach of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. He'll be joined at the news conference by Athletic Director Jeremy Foley.

The 49-year-old Donovan leaves Florida with a mark of 467-186 with the Gators and 502 total career collegiate wins after becoming just the second Division I coach to reach 500 victories before his 50th birthday.

Billy and ThunderGAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Whether watching on ESPN2 or on live stream via NBA.com, the end of one Billy Donovan era and the start of another became a striking reality Friday when the iconic Florida basketball coach stepped to a podium halfway across the country and spoke for the first time as head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

With his family seated in the front row and former MVP Kevin Durant huddled with teammates in the back of the room, Donovan touched on some familiar themes -- culture, process, commitment -- as he took his first steps into the altogether different world of professional basketball.

“Anytime you walk into the unknown there’s going to be a level of uncertainty. I’m OK with that,” Donovan told a packed news conference with Thunder general manager Sam Presti, the man who lured him from UF after 19 seasons with a five-year, $30 million contract, at his side. “I’m starting over. Outside of spending a lot of time with Sam, I’m just meeting people for the first time. I have a lot of people I have to impact and I’m really excited about that. I’m excited to put players in position on the court to help them be successful.”

Back in Gainesville, some people Donovan impacted -- and loves dearly -- watched the broadcast. Florida, for now, does not have a basketball coach, but remaing assistant coaches John Pelphrey and Rashon Burno, along with the basketball support staff, are not sitting around lamenting the loss of their boss.

On Thursday, with Donovan’s move to the Thunder official, UF athletic director Jeremy Foley came to the basketball office for a meeting. He explained to the staff that the emotions of this very sad development would pass and encouraged them to press forward with their jobs; most importantly, to reach out to players, parents, incoming freshmen and recruits, keep them apprised of the situation, and tell them not to pay attention to rumors.

Foley always has a standing list for potential coaching replacements, but he and executive associate AD Mike Hill, the senior administrator who oversees men’s basketball, foresaw the NBA making a run at Donovan this offseason and have been in fact-finding mode (just in case) for weeks now.

Foley will have a news conference next week to address the Gators’ vacancy. Ideally, it will come in conjunction with one last media opportunity with Donovan before he bolts for OKC for good.

Donovan did well at his intro presser Friday. When asked why he didn’t recruit Durant, the 2014 NBA Most Valuable Player, to the Gators, he deadpanned, “We probably didn’t think he was good enough.” About his lack of experience with the NBA, he shot back, “I’ve been an NBA coach before ... for a day.”

That, of course, was a reference to 2007 when after winning a second straight NCAA championship he took the job as head coach of the Orlando Magic, had two press conferences (one in Orlando, one in Gainesville), only to change his mind, back out of the job and return to Florida 72 hours later.

But Donovan explained those circumstances had more to do with him than the Magic. He was haunted by buyer’s remorse that he still had unfinished business at Florida.

In taking the Thunder job, though, Donovan left knowing he’d put his heart and soul into the Gators -- 467 victories, six Southeastern Conference, 14 NCAA Tournament berths and those two national championships worth -- and taken the program as far as he believed he could.

“Today is not about me. Today is about the team and organization,” Donovan said on a day, with all due respect, that was very much about him. “I’m excited about learning and growing. That’s important to me. ... No question, there’s going to be a transition period. I anticipate that. I’ll have great people around me to work through any roadblocks.”

Nearly four days of interviews made Presti a Donovan believer. Not that he didn’t foresee this coming. The OKC exec was a frequent visitor to UF the last few seasons and very likely was doing groundwork for this opportunity.

“This is a naturally and intrinsically driven individual,” Presti said of Donovan. “He is naturally curious. He is a person who has great emotional intelligence and awareness. He has relentless work ethic and someone we feel is a great fit for not just our environment, but also a great fit for the community of Oklahoma City because of how he conducts his business; the way his teams perform.”

Wednesday April 29, 2015 Fowler about to join some rarefied Gators first-round air

Updated: 10:27am, April 30

Fowler sacking Winston GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Dante Fowler Jr., is poised to become the 47th first-round NFL draft pick in University of Florida history. Not only is Fowler, who will play defensive end or outside linebacker depending on the system, a slam dunk to go in the top 10, but it’ll be a shock of he’s not the first Gator product to be chosen in the top five since defensive tackle Gerard “Big Money” Warren went third overall to Cleveland in 2001.

How rarefied is top-five air in UF lore?

* No. 1 overall: None
* No. 2 overall: 1 (and that was Paul Duhart 70 years ago)
* No. 3 overall: 4 (Steve Spurrier in 1966; Chuck Hunsinger in ’50; Wes Chandler in ’78; and Warren).

That’s it.

With the exception of Chandler, who was a superstar wideout in both New Orleans and San Diego, none of those top-fivers had stellar careers. Duhart, a Canadian who fought in World War II before attending Florida, played just two NFL seasons after being picked by Pittsburgh. Hunsinger played three seasons in Chicago, but is best known for a certain play as a back with the Montreal Allouettes that cost his team the 1954 Grey Cup championship game in the Canadian Football League.

Spurrier was drafted by San Francisco to eventually succeed incumbent quarterback John Brodie, but was basically a pretty good punter for nine NFL seasons, though he did hold the team record for touchdown passes in a game (5) for 13 years until Joe Montana tied it in 1985 and Steve Young broke it with six in '95. Warren stuck around for 11 seasons with Cleveland, Denver, Oakland and New England.

By all accounts, Fowler figures to have a major impact on whatever team takes him -- Jacksonville and Washington are the ones he most matches up with in mock drafts -- but I’m sure the same was said 14 years ago about Warren, right?

Last year, the Gators had defensive tackle Dominique Easley picked in the first round, despite suffering a season-ending knee injury nearly eight months earlier. Easley went to New England with the 29th pick overall and, though inactive in the postseason, got a Super Bowl championship ring as a rookie.

Easley gave Florida a first round pick in all but eight of the 32 drafts since 1983.

Fowler will make it 33, with offensive tackle and fellow early entry D.J. Humphries also with a good shot of jumping into Round 1.

All time, the Gators have had 316 players drafted by the NFL (that ranks 12th among college programs, with 46 in the first round).

Here are my picks for the best ever (and, no, they've not changed since last year).

Emmitt 1) Emmitt Smith (Dallas, 1990, 17th overall, pictured right). NFL’s all-time rushing leader with 18,355 yards, three-time Super Bowl champion, eight-time Pro-Bowler, four-time NFL rushing champion and first-ballot Pro Football Hall-of-Famer. Smith (pictured above right) is the only choice for this spot, right? Right.  

2) Wilber Marshall (Chicago, 1984, 11th overall). Beastly outside linebacker -- maybe the greatest defensive player in UF history -- who starred on arguably the greatest defense in NFL history for the Bears. In 1988, Marshall (signed a free-agent contract before there was even free agency. He got big money from Washington and helped the Redskins win a Super Bowl, too.

3) Wes Chandler (New Orleans, 1978, 3rd overall). Was great for the Saints, but even greater as one Dan Fouts’ targets for those explosive “Air Coryell” offenses in San Diego.

4) Jack Youngblood (Los Angeles Rams, 1971, 20th overall). Linebacker from Monticello became the first UF-produced Pro Football Hall of Famer in 2001. One of the toughest, most ferocious and passionate players of his era.

5) Lomas Brown (Detroit Lions, 1985, 6th overall). An 18-year offensive left tackle whose career spanned three decades (1980s, 1990s and 2000s), was voted to seven Pro Bowls and named first-team All-Pro three times. Won a Super Bowl as a backup with Tampa Bay in ’02.

6) Kevin Carter (St. Louis Rams, 1995, 6th overall). Exemplary student-athlete, Carter became a Pro Bowl defensive end for the ’99 Super Bowl champion Rams and went on to star for Tennessee, Miami and Tampa Bay, as well. Carter is one of only 30 players in NFL history to record 100 sacks in a career, Carter’s 104.5 is tied for 25th all-time. 

Kearse 7) Jevon Kearse (Tennessee Titans, 1999, 16th overall). They were calling him “The Freak” before everybody it seemed was called a “freak.” Kearse (right) broke the league’s rookie record for sacks with 14.5 and won ’99 Defensive Rookie of Year honors while helping the Titans reach the Super Bowl (where they lost to Carter’s Rams).

8) Fred Taylor (Jacksonville Jaguars, 1998, 9th overall). One of only 28 players in NFL history to reach 10,000 career rushing yards, Taylor currently ranks 15th on the all-time list with 11,695 yards. He retired after the 2010 season.

9) Trace Armstrong (Chicago Bears, 1989, 12th overall). Another 100-sacks club member. He checks in at 24th with 106. Armstrong returned to school to get his law degree, went on to become president of the NFL Players Association and now is agent for several high-profile coaches and sports media personalities.

10) Percy Harvin (Minnesota Vikings, 2009, 22nd overall). Tough to imagine 21 players better than this guy in that draft. Harvin was Offensive Rookie of the Year playing alongside Brett Favre. Granted, Harvin has had his issues, both injury and otherwise --  which is why Buffalo in 2015 will be his fourth team in as many seasons -- but everyone knows what he's capable of doing, with his dazzling 87-yard kickoff return for the Seahawks against Denver in Super Bowl XLIII his gold-standard play.

Monday April 27, 2015 Eli Carter intends to transfer

Updated: 4:28pm, April 28

Eli vs Kentucky GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The roster turnover continued for the Florida basketball team Monday with official word that combo guard Eli Carter intends to transfer to another school pending his graduation.

The 6-foot-2 Carter, a fourth-year junior out of Paterson, N.J., was UF’s third-leading scorer last season at 8.8 points per game after shooting 36.2 percent from the floor and 30.5 from 3-point range.

“I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had here at Florida,” said Carter, who is on track to graduate with a degree in African American Studies, in a statement. “I’ll always appreciate the coaches, teammates and fans that made my time here memorable.”

Injuries impacted much of Carter’s two seasons with the Gators after he transferred to UF in 2013 from Rutgers, where he averaged 14.3 points over two seasons. At the time of his arrival, Carter was still recovering from a broken leg that ended his sophomore season with the Scarlet Knights. The injury did not heal properly and Carter was shut down after just 53 minutes over seven games in ’13-14, and eventually was granted a medical redshirt year.

Back and healthier in 2014-15, Carter went 8-for-9 from the floor and scored 21 points against Miami in the second game of the season, but three days later sprained his foot during practice. The injury hampered Carter for the better part of the next six weeks, though he eventually settled into a starting spot and went on to eclipse 1,000 career points (1,049).  

“We appreciate everything that Eli has done in his two years in Gainesville,” Coach Billy Donovan said in a statement. “We all wish him well and will do whatever we can to help him take this next step in his career.”

Carter is the third UF player from last season’s 16-17 who won’t return for 2015-16. Both junior guard Michael Frazier II, the team’s second-leading scorer, and sophomore center Chris Walker placed their names in the underclassmen pool for the NBA Draft.

Florida now has eight players on its roster for next season -- the NCAA limit for men’s basketball is 13 -- pending the arrival of next season’s freshman class.

Sunday April 26, 2015 Damico a big hit for Gators on final day of Senior Weekend

Updated: 8:28pm, April 26

Senior Jessica Damico reacts after scoring the game-clinching run Saturday one batter after getting her first hit of the season, an RBI single, in a 9-1 defeat of Texas A&M. [Photos by Jim Burgess]

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When pinch-hitter Jessica Damico stepped to the plate Sunday in the bottom of the fifth inning, it marked just the fourth at-bat of the season for the senior from Gray Summitt, Mo. Damico had appeared in 38 of Florida’s 50 games coming in, but mostly as a pinch-runner or late-game defensive substitution.

Three years ago, Damico was named to the All-Southeastern Conference Freshman team, but Coach Tim Walton’s penchant for adding marquee prospects to his program year after year impacted Damico’s opportunities to get in the lineup. Eighty-six at-bats in 2012; then 74 in 2013; down to 10 in 2014. 

And now came just her fourth of 2015.

In the final home game of Senior Weekend, no less.

So it was fitting Damico delivered two big plays to finish the game in run-rule fashion. She went with a pitch on the outside corner and slapped it sharply to right field for an RBI single and her first base hit of the season, then raced to second on a throwing error. On the very next pitch, Kelsey Stewart punched a single to short left field, with Damico rounding third base and scoring the game-winning run in a 9-1 defeat of Texas A&M.

That’s 15 straight victories for the No. 1-ranked Gators (47-4, 16-4), who with the sweep of the 25th-ranked Aggies (34-17, 9-12) maintained a half-game lead on Auburn in the race for the SEC regular-season title.  

“It’s pretty awesome to know I still put in the work to get the job done that my team needed me to do,” Damico said. “They’ve supported me and I’ve supported them. It’s nice to go out and give them what I have.”

Lauren Her career statistics won’t approach the home runs and pitching wins of Lauren Haeger (right), or the big hits by Bailey Castro or Brianna Little, or the stellar defense of Kathlyn Medina, but now Damico has another sweet memory to tuck away with all the others compiled alongside her senior sisters who came to Gainesville together in summer of 2011.

Throw in Francesca Martinez, who transferred to UF in 2014 from Daytona State, and all six seniors scored at least one run during the A&M series. Some of them did a lot more.

Haeger, as usual, comes to mind.

After surrendering a home run to Tori Vidales in the top of the first, Haeger set down the next 14 Aggies -- the only ones she faced -- as UF’s national player of the year candidate improved her pitching mark to 23-0. She also had an RBI single.

All told, the Gators cranked out 12 hits, all but one of them singles. A&M starter Kayla Ober came into the game having yet to allow an extra base hit in SEC play, but Stewart took care of that streak when she led off UF’s first by blasting a triple off the wall in centerfield. The Gators erased an early deficit for the third straight game by plating three runs in the first and leaving matters to Haeger’s right arm. She finished with seven strikeouts and no walks in her five-inning one-hitter.

Pretty good senior weekend, but don’t confuse it for a senior send-off. After UF ends the regular season with a series at Missouri next weekend, there’s the SEC Tournament at Baton Rouge, La., and then the NCAA Tournament.

These elder Gators are far from finished with making memories at Pressly Stadium.

“I don’t think it’s going to hit me until I’m done,” Haeger said of her three-day senior celebration. “We still have a really long last part of the season, hopefully.”

More like definitely.

Friday April 24, 2015 Chris Walker turning pro

Updated: 4:20pm, April 24

Chris Walker GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Sophomore center Chris Walker is leaving Florida and will put his name in the NBA Draft pool.

Walker, the 6-foot-10, 220-pounder who averaged 3.7 points and 2.7 rebounds during his two UF seasons, toyed with his decision in the six weeks since the Gators’ 2014-15 campaign ended in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. After weighing his options, consulting with Coach Billy Donovan and family, plus getting feedback from NBA scouts, Walker opted for an early exit.

The deadline for underclassmen declaring for the draft is Sunday at 6 p.m.

Walker (pictured right) was a McDonald’s All-American and top-10 recruit when he signed with the Gators in the fall of 2012. Though he never came close to meeting the sky-high expectations that proceeded his arrival to UF, Walker’s athleticism and ceiling have kept him in conversations in some NBA front offices, despite a sophomore season when he averaged just 4.7 points, 3.5 rebounds and played just 15 minues per game.

Walker is the second UF players to put his name in the NBA pool, joining junior guard Michael Frazier II, who also is a marginal prospect -- late-first round to undrafted -- according to a survey of mock drafts.

Bridget and Rhonda GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The beaming smile so often associated with Bridget Sloan had been replaced by what could only be described as blankness. And, sure enough, Sloan's first words put Friday’s bombshell at the Florida gymnastics studio into perspective.

“For the first time in my life, I’m speechless,” she said.

Coach Rhonda Faehn, just six days removed from leading the Gators to a third straight NCAA title, called her team into a meeting after posing for its national championship photo and, fighting back tears, told them she was leaving to become senior vice president of USA Gymnastics.

The news hit the Gators like a balance beam to the teeth.

“When she got up there to talk to us, then started crying a little bit, I knew it wasn’t going to be good news,” junior Bridgette Caquatto said. “It hurts to see someone so strong like that be in such a sad moment.”

After 13 seasons at UF, the 43-year-old Faehn will now be a powerful voice in Elite gymnastics, with a heavy hand in everything from club level to the national team to the World Championships and Olympics. Faehn, a former Elite gymnast and 1988 Olympian, will be USA Gymnastics' second in command to National Team coordinator Marta Karolyi.

“It’ll be all-encompassing,” Faehn said.

Lynda Tealer, UF’s executive associate athletics director for administration, spoke briefly to the team and assured the athletes a search to replace Faehn would yield an outstanding candidate.

In their broken hearts, each Gator athlete had to know this was an opportunity of a lifetime for their coach -- and with success comes great opportunity.

And each of those Gators was at the core of Faehn's success.

Caquatto “From our standpoint, it’s a little confusing, but you have to take a step back and look at all the awesome things she’s done for the program,” said Caquatto (pictured right), who has known nothing but national championships since arriving as a freshman from Naperville, Ill. “She’s built this program to be successful and taught her athletes, each and every one of us, life’s lessons; not just in gymnastics, but how to grow and be a better person. This is a tremendous opportunity for her.”

Sloan, the 21-time All-American, 2013 Honda Award winner and arguably the No. 1 college gymnast in the country, admittedly was having trouble processing the events of the morning. Like Caquatto, Sloan has been at Florida three years and won three national championships, meeting every bit of the immence expectations that accompanied her from Indiana and an Elite, international career. Not bad.

But her all-world coach had just dropped the mic and walked off the stage.

“We were still on a high from winning our third straight national championship, so, right now, we all have to let this all sink in ... this is not what we were expecting,” said Sloan (pictured top right with her coach). “I have no doubt Rhonda will be great in her new position and have no doubt whoever they bring in will be the best fit for us.”

She paused.

“But we’re a bunch of 19-, 20-, 22-year-old girls and we’re a difficult task to handle,” Sloan added. “She’ll be greatly missed. Best coach I’ve ever had. It’ll be different.”

Seniors


GAINESVILLE, Fla. – For Keith Carodine, the event represents something of a rite of passage.

Carodine, senior associate athletics director for the Office of Student Life, thumbed through the program following Thursday’s luncheon honoring UF’s graduating seniors. Each had their own page and action shot. Each had written their own Gators story.

Carodine, like all UF administrators, coaches, support staff and teammates could relate to just about every one of them.

* Basketball player Kayla Lewis: “She competed this year as a post-grad.”

* Distance runner Macy Huskey: “Knew her family long before she got here. I remember her as a toddler.”

* Golfer Eric Banks: “Overcame open-heart surgery. Talk about courage and perseverance.”

* Thrower Jayla Bostic: “I remember the coach calling me and saying he didn't know much about her, only that she was tall, long and going to be really good.”

* Volleyball player Holly Pole: “She’s working in our accounting office now.”

* Swimmer Matthew Thompson: “Just got a job at Northwestern.”

You get the idea.

Kelsey All told, 69 student-athletes are set to graduate in the spring or finish work toward their degrees this summer. Woven in that number are players who helped win 24 conference championships, nine national titles and received 50 all-league academic honors.

“Now they’re all grown up and are ready for that next chapter,” Carodine said.

The keynote speaker of the event, always a former athlete, was 2013 graduate Kelsey Horton (pictured right), a four-year standout on the UF softball team. She recalled being in the very same Gator Room for her senior luncheon two years ago and listening to the message from that day’s speaker, former gymnast Ashley Kerr.

The words resonated.

“When Ashley spoke about never having to let go of being a Gator student-athlete, I always thought of that when I was trying to fill that void as I looked at who I was going to be after softball,” Horton said. “Well, what I found out is that you can still be that Gator athlete and also be who else it is you’re going to be.”

Horton went to Auburn to start pharmacy school, stayed there a year and transferred back to UF. Last June, she asked for three days off from her summer job in Tampa so she could come back and watch the Gators face Alabama in the championship series of the NCAA Women's College World Series.

She sat with friends in a midtown restaurant that roared as her former teammates won the program's first national title.

"It was so exciting," Horton said.

And now it’s time for these young men and women – these Gator athletes – to move on to the next chapter of their lives. For them, that's exciting.

They’ll leave, though, knowing the book on their UF experiences will be there to go back and read forever.

Wednesday April 22, 2015 Gators just 'get it done' against Seminoles

Updated: 1:11pm, April 23

Lauren high-fiving GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- That Lauren Haeger was 1-for-19 in her career against Florida State was pretty amazing, but that didn’t stop the Seminoles from showing Florida's senior slugger the kind of respect worthy of a national player of the year candidate.

When Haeger (right), who last week set the Southeastern Conference record for all-time home runs, stepped to the plate Wednesday night at Pressly Stadium in the UF first with a couple runners on, FSU’s third baseman was positioned in the outfield grass.

Haeger attempted a bunt.

“I think that’s a message to everybody,” Gators coach Tim Walton said later. “You can’t play us behind the base and not expect our athletes to put the ball down at times.”

Haeger’s bunt attempt went foul, but she eventually grounded to second and plated Nicole DeWitt with the first run of what turned out to be a 5-0 victory for top-ranked Florida over the No. 10 rival Seminoles. Two innings later, Haeger got the second hit of her career -- a two-run single -- against FSU and the first in 15 at-bats against ace Lacey Waldrop.

“It felt so good,” Haeger said of the line drive to left that scored DeWitt and Kirsti Merritt for a 3-0 edge and paired nicely with her victory in the circle (yet another one) to improve to a sparkling 21-0 on the year. “It wasn’t the best hit, but I’ll take anything I can.”

That’s how the Gators (44-4,), winners of 12 straight now after finishing their non-conference schedule unbeaten in 31 outings, approached the game against an outstanding pitcher in Waldrop, who has mastery of off-speed, drops and risers. The plan, Haeger explained, was to just keep things short, stay in the middle of the field and avoid big swings.

“Beat the ball into the ground and use our speed,” Haeger said.

A sacrifice here, squeeze and stolen base there, with some hit-and-runs for good measure. Walton’s team is perfectly capable of playing smash ball, but the Gators demonstrated in this win their ability to do small ball. That's always a good thing heading into the home stretch of the regular season. Come the SEC and NCAA tournaments, better be able to win a bunch of different ways.

“Sometimes you got to do little things like that,” Walton said.

UF shut out a top-10 opponent without an extra base hit; with only six hits total. Instead, the Gators manufactured their runs with smart, decisive and swift base-running and those couple timely hits, with Haeger adding to her team-leading RBI total with three and Merritt knocking in another with a sacrifice bunt.

Florida touched up Waldrop for two unearned runs, thanks to an error and paszed ball.

“It was nice to see us produce runs without big hits,” Merritt said. “We like to say, ‘Getting it done.’ Even if we get out, get a run. That’s what Lauren did her first time up.”

Haeger’s fielder’s-choice RBI “got it done” early and got the Gators off to a decent start against a pitcher who two years ago came to town and -- get this -- struck out 18 UF batters.

This time, she struck out four in 4-plus innings.

No, UF didn’t touch Waldrop up.

The Gators just got it done.

“We had to make a couple adjustments. You can see they were made,” Merritt said of facing Waldrop, who dropped to 24-6 as the Gators made just enough contact to do their jobs. “You practice and think about and watch video, so when it rolls into the game, it’s good.”

Claire Boyce FORT WORTH, Texas -- The NCAA Championships in the Lone Star State means a homecoming of sorts for the Florida gymnastics team.

Just about every other team here, too.

A survey of the 12 squads on hand for college gymnastics’ marquee event shows 28 athletes from the state of Texas (or 15 percent of the competitors), with only UCLA and Nebraska without representation. What makes that statistic all the more insane is that the nation’s second-most populated state has -- get this -- zero Division I gymnastics programs.

“It's crazy,” UF senior and native Texan Rachel Spicer said. “If they had a school [with the sport] in Texas, they would dominate.”

But they don’t, which is good news for some of the elite programs across the country, including two-time reigning NCAA champion Florida, which lists five Texans on the roster; and that doesn’t count senior superstar Kytra Hunter, who was born in San Antonio.

“I think of Texas as my second home,” UF coach Rhonda Faehn said. "I have to."

That's because recruiting well is oil-like rich with gymnasts in these parts, which is how Faehn happened upon Spicer (Highland Village), Claire Boyce (Arlington), Ericha Fassbender (Katy), Kennedy Baker (Flower Mound) and Grace McLaughlin (Allen). Each is from the metropolitan Dallas area. Baker and Boyce came out of the prestigous Texas Dreams club.

Coming this fall: Freshman Peyton Ernst, by way of Coppell and a Senior International Elite gymnast and two-time member of the U.S. Senior National team.

Yes, everything is bigger in Texas. Apparently, the gymnasts are better, too. Certainly plentiful.

“My house is literally 15 minutes from here,” Boyce (pictured above) said Thursday after the team’s NCAA practice sessions at Fort Worth Convention Center Arena. “I told [the coaches] I wanted to go home for just a few hours, but they wouldn’t let me.”

Well, after all, there is some business to tend to here. And the fact it is here -- where these athletes have plenty of family of friends -- should be helpful when the competition begins Friday at 2 p.m. (ET) with the first of two six-team sessions, with the field be cut in half for Saturday night's Super Six.

Florida will be in that first Friday session.

“We’re going to have a huge crowd backing us up,” said Hunter, whose mother's side of the family hails from Houston. “We love to have the Gator Nation represented. We get six tickets each, but everybody’s been like, ‘Got any more tickets?’ ”

Baker noted the Gators could have something of a home-gym advantage, but added a caveat.

“So will just about everybody,” she said. “I kept running into [athletes] today and saying, ‘Hey, I haven’t seen you in years!’ I know I wasn’t the only one.”

The meet is being hosted by Division II Texas Women’s University, home to the lone gymnastics program in the Lone Star, and figures to a grand showcase for the sport in a place where it could use some showcasing. Who knows what it might lead to? An actual gymnastics program somewhere in the state, perhaps?

What a radical thought.

“We're always in support of other schools trying to pick up gymnastics,” Faehn said. “It might ignite something. We would love that.”

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