Tuesday September 29, 2015 UF basketball adds high-jumper as walk-on
Updated: 10:01am, September 30
Welcome to Harry Fodder!
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Mike White’s first basketball roster has grown by one.
Florida has added 6-foot-4 sophomore wing Jhonny Victor, a high-jumper and triple-jumper on the UF track team, to its roster as a walk-on for the 2015-16 season.
Victor, out of Celebration (Fla.) High, averaged 12 points and six rebounds over his three-year career and was a first-team, All-Osceola County basketball selection by The Orlando Sentinel in both 2013 and ’14. He was a district and regional champion in the high jump, long jump and triple jump.
Gateway High no doubt remembers him, as below video suggests. Yes, his first name is spelled wrong.
As a UF freshman in the spring of 2015, Victor competed in 10 track meets for the Gators, focusing primarily on the high jump, with a career-best of 6 feet, 10 inches. He also went 45-2.75 in the triple jump.
With the basketball team, Victor will join sophomore center Schulyler Rimmer, along with guards Lexx Edwards and Zach Hodskins as walk-ons. Rimmer, the 6-10 transfer from Stanford, will be eligible after the end of the fall semester.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Rhonda Faehn’s schedule is pretty tight these days, but that didn’t prevent the former Florida gymnastics coach and three-time NCAA champion from heading back to see her Gators family to pick up some jewelry this weekend.
Faehn, now senior vice president of USA Gymnastics, joined her former team -- and new Coach Jenny Rowland -- Friday night when the Gators received their national championship rings.
A crowd of around 100 attended the ceremony, with athletes, coaches and support staff (current and some former), along with family members, plus UF athletic directory Jeremy Foley and executive associate AD Lynda Tealer.
“It was really, really special,” said Faehn (pictured far right, along with sophomore Kennedy Baker, middle, and assistant to the head coach Ashley Kerr, left). “It was a wonderful homecoming and just so amazing to be back to see the girls and to be in the gym [studio] on Friday and see all the people that helped us along the way. It was just incredibly heartfelt all the way around.”
That included taking a bow, along with her former team, before 90,000-plus during the first quarter of the football team’s eventual 28-27 victory over Tennessee at The Swamp.
Ringbearers: Former UF gymnastics star Kytra Hunter (left) and senior Bridget Sloan (right) pose with their three championship rings and three NCAA championship trophies during Friday night's ceremony.
Unfortunately, Faehn couldn’t stick around to see the thrilling end and wild post-game -- “The atmosphere in there reminded me of that [2006 South Carolina] game where we blocked the field goal,” she said -- because she’s got a few things on her plate.
Like selection camp this week in Houston, where she’ll help peg the squad that will represent Team USA at the World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland later this month.
It’s a critical time for the sport, what with the 2016 Olympics just 10 months away in Rio Di Janeiro. The USA championships are in June, then the Olympic trials a couple weeks later.
So a lot going on.
Not enough to bypass a chance to reunite with the Gators and celebrate her place in UF history.
“Jenny and I have a tremendous amount of respect for another,” Faehn said of Rowland (right), who came to UF by way of Auburn after leading the Tigers to the Super Six last season. “The part that was touching for me was having the athletes come up and tell me how happy they were to see me. They’re the ones I’ve always coached for.”
Kentucky's Commonwealth Stadium underwent a $150 million renovation during the offseason that was debuted two weekends ago in a season-opening win against Louisiana-Lafayette. Saturday night's date with Florida will mark its Southeastern Conference unveiling.
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The events of that day carried painful ramifications for the Florida football program.
They also taught a young athletic administrator a painful lesson.
If it’s September then it must be time to revisit the Florida-Kentucky football series and the Gators’ run of dominance over the Wildcats. UF has defeated UK 28 consecutive times, dating to 1986, the longest active winning streak for one FBS program over another. In this instances, it's fashionable to note, for example, that none of the current players were alive the last time Kentucky prevailed -- but now we can throw in a handful of graduate assistants and quality control guys, too.
UF athletic director Jeremy Foley was around, though.
At the time, he probably wished he wasn’t.
You see, Foley had been named interim AD, after Bill Carr stepped down late in that season. The Gators were bowl-eligible for the first time in three years after serving two seasons on NCAA probation. The bowl system was in its backroom-deal heyday and Florida basically locked into the inaugural Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa.
It was going to be triumphant. It was going to be a sellout. It was going to be glorious.
The Gators just had to win at Kentucky.
“I had gotten everybody together before the game and I had actually handed out our bowl assignments for Tampa. You know, ‘You do this, I’ll do that, here’s how we’ll handle logistics.’ ... Then we got beat,” Foley recalled in a 2005 interview with Tampa Tribune writer Joey Johnston that looked back at the game’s (now the Outback Bowl) 20-year anniversary. “I was the jinx.”
It probably had more to do with a gray and blustery Bluegrass State day and a UF offensive display that was every bit as dismal.
The fallout of that terrible 10-3 loss has stuck with Foley since. No longer does he dive nose-deep into securing travel plans and accomodations on spec. Might be good advice to Gator fans who dare make any assumptions about Saturday night’s showdown with the Cats at Commonwealth Stadium.
So, with that in mind, I wrote the below blog back in 2013 when the Gators ventured to Lexington and eventually won 24-7 for consecutive victory No. 27. For kicks, I reran the blog last year in the run-up to that 36-30 triple-overtime thriller at Gainesville that pushed the string to 28.
And if the Gators get it right again Saturday, you’ll see it again next year too.
You get the idea.
From Sept. 27, 2013
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Where were you Nov. 15, 1986?
I was writing high school sports for The Tampa Tribune, still four years from my first go-around covering the University of Florida. One thing I know for certain: I was not watching the Gators football team that day because they weren’t on television, thanks to NCAA probation sanctions.
For Florida fans, perhaps that was for the best.
Kentucky 10, Florida 3.
It marked the last time in the series that dates to 1917 the Wildcats defeated the Gators. The streak of UF wins, which began with a 27-14 victory at Gainesville in 1987, stands at 26 straight. That’s tied for the longest run in Southeastern Conference history (Tennessee beat Kentucky every year from 1985-2010) and also tied for sixth-longest in NCAA history.
After that game, UF's edge in the series was just 20-17.
Now it's 46-17.
[Editor's note: Now, actually 48-17]
Such staggering mastery cries for one of my trips down Memory Lane.
If you don't believe me, ask The Lexington Herald-Leader, which ran the actual game story from that day on its website Friday. That's UK quarterback Bill Ransdell (above left) on the move against the Gators.
Like I often say, not all memorable games are memorable for good reasons, but they’re in the history books and going nowhere.
To the time machine we go.
FOR HISTORICAL CONTEXT (Headlines of Nov. 15, 1986)
* When President Reagan signed the Tax Reform Act of 1986 into law the month before, he set into motion the most sweeping restructuring of the tax system in at least a generation. The signing spurred what had already been an intense race against the clock by taxpayers looking to take maximum advantage of the transition from the old system to the new system.
* The Islamic Jihad group said it would not release the remaining American hostages in Lebanon until its demands were met, dashing hopes for a quick release of the captives. A typewritten statement to the U.S. embassy in Beirut was accompanied by a black and white photograph of Terry Anderson, one of the group’s two remaining hostages.
* The transition of the Senate from Republican to Democratic control began the week before as legislators from each party gathered to pick their leaders for the 100th Congress that would convene in just over six weeks. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) was set to take over as majority leader, while Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who had served as majority leader, would assume the minority role. Democrats would have a 55-45 Senate advantage following the mid-term elections when Republicans lost eight seats.
* The hit movies at the time were “Children of a Lesser God” (with William Hurt and Marlee Matlin, who would win an Academy Award for Best Actress), “The Color of Money (with Paul Newman, who would also win an Oscar for Best Actor, and an up-and-comer named Tom Cruise), plus “Peggy Sue Got Married (starring Kathleen Turner and Nicolas Cage).
* On the tube, “Designing Women,” “L.A. Law” and “Matlock” were in their debut seasons, while Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman and Kevin Nealon were newcomers to the cast of “Saturday Night Live.”
* The biggest hits on the radio were “True Colors” by Cyndi Lauper, “Amanda” by Boston and “Human” by Human League.
The Gators had won four straight, including back-to-back defeats of rivals Auburn and Georgia, the former an 18-17 win at Florida Field that many a UF diehard still recall as one of the greatest wins -- certainly comebacks -- in school history.
Florida, after starting the season 1-4, was on a role.
A year after the NCAA’s postseason ban kept the 9-1-1 Gators home for the holidays, Florida (5-4, 2-3) went to Kentucky (4-4-1, 1-3) knowing it was the No. 1 choice for the upstart Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa.
All the Gators had to do was beat the Wildcats.
The game marked the first trip to Lexington since UF celebrated a 25-17 win there in 1984, a victory that clinched the first Southeastern Conference championship in school history. That title, of course, was eventually stripped seven months after the fact by league presidents, who cited the NCAA sanctions and order the title vacated.
The stakes in this game weren’t nearly as high, but Coach Galen Hall and his players, especially the seniors, wanted to exit the SEC season on a winning note and guarantee themselves the first postseason game since 1983.
For the Gators, it was a cold, wet and miserable day all the way around. As if the 36-degree temperatures at kickoff and constant drizzle throughout weren’t bad enough, Florida did next to nothing on offense, while a backup UK running back had a breakout game in a thoroughly frustrating eyesore of a defeat at Commonwealth Stadium.
Reserve tailback Mark Higgs ran 27 times for 97 yards, including the game’s lone touchdown, and also caught six passes for 52 more yards. Higgs’ TD in the first quarter gave the Wildcats a lead they never relinquished.
A field goal from UF’s Jeff Dawson in the second period marked the only points for the Gators and were countered by a Joe Worley field goal in the fourth.
Florida had one last chance for a miracle drive -- and tie -- but wide receiver Ricky Nattiel fumbled on the back end of a 17-yard completion. Kentucky recovered to ice the game.
UF quarterback Kerwin Bell, who hit just one of his first nine passes in the opening half, finished seven of 24 for 145 yards and two interceptions.
The Gators, befuddled by Kentucky coach Jerry Claborne’s signature “Wide-Tackle 6” defense, finished with just 220 yards of total offense, held the ball just 18 minutes, 58 seconds and ran only 49 plays to UK’s 79. The Wildcats were playing without star running back Ivy Joe Hunter, out of Gainesville Buchholz, who a week earlier had rushed for 238 yards and four touchdowns in a win at Vanderbilt before a late-game injury. Enter Higgs.
Exit the Gators ... with the loss.
* “I have to say this is the worst loss I’ve ever been through. You have to play this game with a lot of emotion and we’ve had trouble in the past getting up for Kentucky. I didn’t think it would be a problem this year, but they just wanted it a little more than we did.” -- UF offensive lineman Scott Armstrong
* “It was wet and cold and the ball had a slick film on it. Two of the passes got away from me and I was never able to get my feet set on the slippery field. Give Kentucky credit. They played a great game and we just couldn’t get anything going.” -- Bell
* “You can’t ever be surprised in college football. Everyone has good players and sometimes those good players can be great players.” -- UF safety Jarvis Williams
* “Kentucky is just like Mississippi State. There is no way we should lose to them. Once again, we just beat ourselves.” -- Nattiel, referencing a 16-7 loss earlier in the season at Mississippi State.
* “Over the years, we’ve been so close to beating Florida. A lot of the Florida players talked a lot of trash. They told me I wouldn’t be able to do anything against them. I think I proved them wrong. ... Florida always thinks they are so big and strong and that they can bully us out there,. They sure didn’t do that today. This game made our season.” -- Higgs, clearly enjoying the moment.
* “Sometimes you have to win on your own. You’ve got to go out and rack it up. You have to shake off the weather and go out and win the game. ... I had no idea we wouldn’t play well. I have no idea why we didn’t.” -- Hall
* "Georgia is a tough, tough football team." -- Claiborne, who was reminded he played Florida. " 'Scuse me," he added.
In case you’re wondering what happened from there (and assuming you didn't stop reading about 20 paragraphs ago), the Gators went to Tallahassee the next week and stunned Florida State 17-13 to finish the season 6-5. The Gators, however, were not invited to the postseason, as all the bowl games were already spoken for. As for the Hall of Fame Bowl, Boston College defeated Georgia 27-24 in that one.
Sophomore wideout C.J. Worton hauls in a touchdown in the fourth quarter last week, one of 14 different Gators who caught a pass in the season-opening defeat of New Mexico State.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The detailed game-by-game sheets stashed away in the communication department’s vault at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium go back to 1946. Before that, official stats are limited.
But this much we do know (thanks to some tireless digging by intern Zach Dirlam): Last week’s 61-13 trouncing of New Mexico State marked the first official time in UF football history the Gators had 10 players catch at least two passes.
Those players were:
Demarcus Robinson (6 receptions); DeAndre Goolsby, Antonio Callaway, C.J. Worton (3 each); Brandon Powell, C’yontai Lewis, Alvin Bailey, Kelvin Taylor, Valdez Showers and Jake McGee (2).
All told, 14 different receivers caught at least one pass. Some wondered, including our Mr. Dirlam, if that was a record, but I reminded him that Steve Spurrier once coached here. Sure enough, young Zach only had to go back to Spurrier’s final season at UF – Sept. 8, 2001 in a 55-6 beating of Louisiana-Monroe in the second week of that season – to find a game when 14 different Gators caught passes.
Remember these guys?
Jabar Gaffney (8 receptions); Taylor Jacobs, Reche Caldwell (5); Kelvin Kight (3); Robert Gillespie, Ran Carthon (2 each); O.J. Smith, Carlos Perez, Brian Haugabrook, Earnest Graham, Brian Stone, Aaron Walker, Ben Troupe and Rob Roberts (1).
Updated: 4:01pm, September 11
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The first goal of Florida’s 2-1 loss in Thursday night’s Southeastern Conference opener unfolded like so.
In the seventh minute, Texas A&M defender Ashlynn Harryman powered a high, arcing free kick 15 yards inside the Aggies’ side of the field at Dizney Stadium. The ball sailed over the heads of UF defenders Christen Westphal and Lauren Smith, took a high bounce at the top of the goalie’s box and became a one-on-one match between A&M forward Aggie Bates and Florida keeper Valerie Tysinger.
Bates won, jumping and nodding the ball goalward just as Tysinger arrived, with Westphal helplessly chasing and flailing as the ball rolled into the back of the net.
The sixth-ranked Aggies had jumped on top.
“That didn’t help,” Gators coach Becky Burleigh said. “But I wasn’t that concerned. I was confident if we passed the ball and moved it we could get past that.”
Unfortunately for Florida, far too many of their passes in this early showdown of SEC powers found the feet of Texas A&M players. For the better part of 90 minutes, eighth-ranked UF couldn't hit the open player or wasn’t moving well enough or getting in position quickly enough to find its rhythm.
It wasn’t until the 76th minute, down 2-0, that junior forward Savannah Jordan scored off an assist from freshman midfielder Mayra Pelayo that injected some late-game life into the Gators. They had a couple more opportunities to tie the game in the final 10 minutes off set piece plays, but credit A&M’s defense for being up to task on the road.
“In the second half, we said if our execution doesn’t get better, our hard work would,” said Westphal, whose team trailed 1-0 at intermission, then fell two goals back nearly 25 minutes into the second half. “We definitely improved. You can come back and compete with hard work.”
The Gators never stopped playing and ultimately they played better.
Burleigh said she saw some samplings of these same traits last weekend against Oklahoma State, but her team managed to pull out a 3-2 overtime win. Against an opponent like Texas A&M (6-1-1, 1-0), which won the SEC Tournament last season and reached the Final Four, portions of playing really won’t cut it.
And they know that. Even the multitude of freshmen understand.
The buzz word for the next few days -- the Gators (4-2, 0-1) face Jacksonville in a non-league game at home Sunday -- and on into next week figures to be “execution.” It needs to be better. And from the get-go.
“We rely so heavy on it that when our execution fails us it’s hard to refocus and reset ourselves,” junior midfielder Meggie Dougherty Howard said. “So when it’s not going well, the key for us is to hard work and show [on offense] for each other early and often, always being an option [for a pass]. We need multiple options that are early and often.”
Check back in a week. That’s when UF dips back into SEC play with a home date against Ole Miss.
“Every game we play, every result we get, positive or negative, is just another opportunity to show what we’re made of,” Burleigh said. “This will be a chance to show some resiliency. How we bounce back will be really important for this group.”
Updated: 11:12am, September 10
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The plan for the Florida quarterbacks remains the status quo, Jim McElwain said.
As for which one will start -- sophomore Treon Harris or redshirt freshman Will Grier --Saturday night when the Gators (1-0) play host to East Carolina (1-0), the UF coach wasn’t ready say.
“Which guy is going to trot out there first, we're going to visit [about as a staff], but it will be very similar,” McElwain said Wednesday night in his final briefing with the media. “Again, [it’s about] the partnership, the guys working to help each other get better. There again, it's about the rise of the other 10 around those guys as we go forward.”
Both did their jobs last weekend in UF’s season-opening 63-13 defeat of New Mexico State. Harris, the incumbent who started the final six games of last season, was on the field first and hit 14 of 19 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns. Grier, in his collegiate debut, was 16-for-18, throwing for 166 yards and two scores, while running for 43 yards and a TD, during the middle two periods before giving way to Harris for the final quarter.
Their play was good enough to beat an opponent that was severely overmatched. That’s about the level of praise McElwain was willing to concede.
In fact, McElwain pointed out a couple specific instances in Wednesday's practice -- plays where his quarterbacks were late throwing over the middle in red-area periods; those mistakes become interceptions -- that needs to be cleaned up.
And will be.
“It wasn't earth-shattering by any stretch of the imagination,” he said of the QB play against New Mexico State. “They've got to get a ton better. I look for them to hopefully take another step this week."
On the injury front, safety Keanu Neal (leg) who missed the NMSU game, but his status for this week was upgraded from doubtful to questionable. He’ll likely be a game time decision. Neal started eight games for UF last season.
Offensive tackle Martez Ivey (knee) is progressing well, McElwain said, but the coach estimated the prized freshman lineman was likely a week away from being ready to play in a game.
The Gators will get a couple defensive players back off suspensions, with defensive end Alex McCalister and safety Marcus Maye reinstated.
“They better have fresh legs,” McElwain said. “I think they found, as they were able to watch, that life moved on. Sometimes that’s the greatest lesson that any of us can learn. Maybe that’ll put a little fire in their tank.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The first game week prep under Coach Jim McElwain is nearly complete, but the next-to-last practice in the run-up to any game, any week will feature a key step to being ready for kickoff.
It’s called “Perfect Thursday,” and the Florida Gators got their first taste of it on, well, Thursday.
In his last speaking opportunity for the media this week, McElwain explained Wednesday the concept behind “Perfect Thursday,” a mile-a-minute sequence where the offense must execute its first eight plays at a breakneck pace -- and with the ball never hitting the ground.
“They know the calls in every situation,” McElwain said. “A lot goes on with the understand in the player’s mind [with] what to expect. We try to paint a picture for them, so when they get into Saturday they’re a step ahead and not in the unknown.”
Consider it another example of the new coaching staff’s meticulous attention to detail.
And no detail is too small.
“Coming out of goal-line, red area, two-point play, third down, all the different situations,” McElwain said of the areas "Perfect Thursday" hits on. “We do the same thing in the kicking game at a very quick pace, through the game plan, step by step. It’s one of those things that we’ve done for a long time. When the guys finally figure out what ‘Perfect Thursday’ is, it helps them play faster on Saturday.”
So how did the first “Perfect Thursday” go?
Sorry. Practices are closed to the public.
Updated: 1:33pm, September 2
Freshman Ike Hilliard catches a pass in UF's 70-21 wipeout of New Mexico State in the 1994 season opener, the Gators' first home game ever as the nation's No. 1-ranked team. [Photo from The Tampa Tribune]
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The 2015 season-opening opponent Saturday night is New Mexico State.
For the University of Florida this will not be a first. The Gators and Aggies actually kicked off the season 21 years ago on what became a night of memorable and record-setting firsts.
And Steve Spurrier wasn't happy about it.
The date was Sept. 3, 1994. UF, ranked No. 1 in the nation for only the second time in school history and for the first time playing at home, obliterated NMSU 70-21. Quarterback Terry Dean set a Southeastern Conference single-game record that night by throwing seven touchdown passes, all in the first half.
The Gators, who ran up 56 points before the break, finished with 618 yards of total offense. Junior wide receiver Jack Jackson caught four touchdown passes. The game marked the debut of a trio of marquee true freshmen in Fred Taylor, Ike Hilliard and Reidel Anthony. The crowd of 84,721 was the largest to ever see a season opener in the state of Florida and there was not an empty seat in the house.
For the record, I was there (see game story in photo, right).
But to truly understand and appreciate what “The Swamp” was like in Spurrier’s hey day, consider the words of New Mexico State coach Bill Hess, who was in absolute awe of what his team experienced.
“I don’t think you’re No. 1 just because you run up 70 points on somebody, but I’ll say this about Florida -- they’ve got a No. 1 atmosphere. I’ve never seen such a rabidness, such mania with a crowd,” Hess said. “When Florida ran on the field, the fans nearly blew the roof off the place. We’re not used to that in Las Cruces (N.M.). It was deafening. The crowd was just toying with us.”
He wasn’t done.
“I hate to see it when Alabama or Auburn comes in here,” Hess continued. “It’s probably just as awesome for them, too. This place is a different world. Those people know how to make noise.”
To the next generation of Gators fans, consider this a history lesson of what a day at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium can be.
Back to that game.
You’ve seen the gaudy statistics and read the glowing remarks from the outmanned opponent. The domination was thorough and complete. And yet, what stood out more than anything from the game that night was the takeaway of the home team.
And its coach.
“We’re not very excited about setting a bunch of records against an opponent that is not the kind of caliber we usually play,” Spurrier said. “Obviously, it was a team out there we had out-personneled. I think we had effort and that our guys played hard, but we had some bad plays.”
Mostly by a defense under the direction new defensive coordinator Bobby Pruett.
“You don’t like it, you don’t expect it,” Pruett said of his debut. “I’m not by any means making an excuse, but it was in front of a big crowd and [with] a new system and we made a couple errors that cost us. We got them corrected in the second half.”
The Aggies struck for a long TD on their very first series, a 73-yarder off a simple sideline out pattern, followed by a couple missed tackles. NMSU quarterback Cody Ledbetter passed for 221 yard and three scores, all three to wideout Lucious Davis (5 catches, 127 yards).
Spurrier: “Hopefully, we can be a little more responsible back there in the secondary."
Senior safety Michael Gilmore: “It was like, ‘What’s going on here?’ I mean, I’m thinking shutout and all of sudden they’ve got seven points and the game just started.”
Senior cornerback Larry Kennedy: “I’m definitely irritated. This team shouldn’t have scored 21 points on us. They shouldn’t have scored any on us.”
That was the mentality of Florida football back 21 years ago (one year for every point the Aggies tallied that night). What will the mentality be Saturday when these two programs square off for the only time?
Let the season begin.
In the interim, here’ some general cheat-sheet knowledge about UF’s Week 1 foe.
NEW MEXICO STATE UNIVERSITY
Where: Las Cruces, N.M.
Enrollment: 19,000 (est.)
Colors: Crimson and white
Mascot: Pistol Pete (below right)
Conference: Sun Belt for football only since 2014, but member of Western Athletic Conference for all other sports since 2005.
All-time record: 423-587-31( Winning percentage -- .421)
Conference championships: 1938 and 1960 (Border Conference); 1976 and 1978 (Missouri Valley Conference)
Playoff appearances: None
Home stadium: Aggie Memorial Stadium (32,393)
Coach: Doug Martin (third season; 4-20)
All-time bowl record: 2-0-1 (Tied Hardin-Simmons 14-14 in 1936 Sun Bowl; defeated North Texas 28-8 in the 1959 Sun Bowl; defeated Utah State 2013 in the 1960 Sun Bowl.
Fun Facts: Spanning 6,250 acres, the NMSU campus is one of the largest in the country. ... Since 1990, fans at Aggies home games have cheered for "The Wonder Dog," be it Smoki (a border collie-shepherd mix) or Striking (a border collie breed) that have been trained to retrieve the kicking tees each time NMSU kicks off. Smoki also gained fame while appearing alongside Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid and Gene Hackman in the film "Wyatt Earp." ... UF fans probably remember Hal Mumme during his stint throwing 60-70 passes a game in his "Air Raid" offense at Kentucky. After running into some NCAA issues, Mumme was fired at UK and resurfaced as head coach at New Mexico State in 2004 and charged with turning around a program that was among the worst in the country. He went 11-38 over four seasons.
FAMOUS ATHLETIC ALUMS
Rich Beem (pictured right) -- Professional golfer who won the 2002 PGA at Hazeltine National, beating Tiger Woods (who birdied the tournament's final four holes) by one stroke.
Roy Gerela -- Placekicker for three of the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers world championship teams of the 1970s, he commanded a rabid following at Three Rivers Stadium that called themselves "Gerelas Gorillas."
Duriel Harris -- Former NFL wideout, most notably during his nine seasons in Miami. He was on the receiving end of one of the most famous plays in playoff history, when Harris caught a short pass from Don Strock, then flipped lateraled it to Tony Nathan for what turned out to be a touchdown on the final play of the first half in the Dolphins' epic 41-38 overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers. Watch here.
Lou Henson ( pictured right) -- Starred for the Aggies in the early '50s, then went on to compiled a record of 779-422 in 44 seasons coaching at Hardin Simmons, twice at NMSU, then at Illinois (which he led to the Final Four in 1989), before returning to NMSU for the last eight seasons of his career. He retired in 2005.
Charley Johnson -- Superstar quarterback who guided NMSU to an 11-0 record and No. 17 final ranking in the Associated Press poll in 1960. Johnson played 15 years in the AFL-NFL, mostly with the St. Louis Cardinals, but also was inducted in the Denver Broncos Ring of Honor.
Walter Johnson -- Three-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman for the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals in the '60s, also inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Sam Lacy -- Fifth overall pick in the NBA draft by the Cincinnati Royals (who became the Kansas City Kings). He is one of just five players in NBA history (along with Hakeem Olajuwon, Julius Erving, David Robinson and Ben Wallace) with at least 100 blocks and 100 steals in six consecutive seasons. Had his jersey retired by the Sacramento Kings.
Joe Pisarcik (pictured right) -- Quarterback for the New York Giants who helped make Herm Edwards famous, courtesy of the infamous "Miracle in the Meadowlands" fumble return for a touchdown late in the 1978 season that kept the Eagles in the playoff hunt.
Fredd Young -- Four-time Pro Bowl linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks during the 1980s and a member of the franchise's 35-year anniversary team.
OTHER FAMOUS ALUMS
Alvy Ray Smith -- Billionaire founder of Pixar (characters, right).
Alan Hale -- Astronomer and discover of the Hale-Bopp Comet.
William Frankfather -- Character actor who appeared in some of the most popular televisions shows of the '70s and '80s ("Greatest American Hero," "A-Team," "Hill Street Blues," "Remington Steele" and "Dynasty" among them).
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The mention of special teams rarely engenders much excitement with fans during the preseason, especially for teams locked in quarterback derbies, searching for consistency at receiver and in quest of building an offensive line.
But that doesn't mean special teams aren't paramount to success.
Case in point: Last season’s South Carolina game. Breakdowns in kick protection -- a blocked chip-shot field goal in the final minutes, then a blocked punt in the final seconds -- turned what seemed to be a sure victory into a confounding defeat and set in motion the dismissal of Coach Will Muschamp.
With the razor-sharp attention to detail of Jim McElwain and his new staff's emphasis, you better believe the flawless execution of a kick is a goal on the checklist.
Junior Austin Hardin is back at placekicker, while third-year sophomore Johnny Townsend has locked down punting duties. Hardin went 7-for-10 on field goals and 12-for-12 on PATs in splitting time with Frankie Velez last season. Townsend was called to punting duty in 2013 amid the struggles of Kyle Christy and averaged 42 yards per attempt over the final six games, but sat out all of ’14 (gaining a redshirt year) as Christy bounced back to take the job.
Come the Sept. 5 season opener against New Mexico State, just who winds up getting the ball to Hardin and Townsend are duties still up for grabs.
“We’ve got a really good battle actually at long snapper,” McElwain said Thursday.
Those duties will fall to walk-ons.
Jonathan Haney (left), a fourth-year junior from Tampa Plant, and Ryan Farr, a freshman from Henderson, Nev., have alternated reps at long snapper for most of the preseason. Jacob Tilghman, a freshman from Dayton Beach, could be in the mix, as well.
In fact, McElwain said it may come down to one of them snapping short (extra points and fields) and the other snapping long (punts).
The job of holding is Townsend’s with running back Case Harrison, the sophomore from Gainesville who was placed on scholarship Saturday, backing Townsend up.
“They’ve all built a good rapport,” McElwain said. “Between those guys, I think the timing has been really good.”
Walk-on guard Lexx Edwards Edwards (center) with his family during Senior Night on March 3 at the O'Connell Center.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For three seasons, Lexx Edwards gave Billy Donovan and the Florida basketball program everything a walk-on could possibly offer. Edwards brought it every day at practice and set an example off the court in making the Southeastern Conference Academic Honor Roll and graduating in four years.
If Mike White likes guys who play hard and are committed, he’s going to love this guy.
Surprise! “Two-X Lexx” is back.
Roughly six months after being honored on UF’s Senior Night, Edwards learned last week he’ll be with the Gators again this season after being admitted to graduate school with a full year of eligibility remaining.
“I’m ecstatic,” Edwards said.
His career numbers show just 39 minutes in 21 games, with no points and eight rebounds, yet they tell nothing about the kid from Orlando Jones High who bypassed several Division I football offers because he wanted to go to a school with a high academic reputation. Edwards could never quite get competing out of his system and one day reached out to Donovan, got a walk-on tryout and was a fixture on the floor for three of the next four seasons (he was not on the team in 2012-13).
Now, three months after walking across the O’Connell Center stage to his sociology degree in May, Edwards will take the next step of his academic life -- he’s pursuing a masters in Sports Administration -- while remaining very much involved in the athletic side of it.
“We’re glad to have him,” White said. “What a great kid.”
For Edwards, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound guard who turned 22 on Wednesday, it’s not about the playing time or the glory of hitting shots (he’s taken just two in his career) or the punishing physical way he practiced that earned the praise and admiration of the former staff. It was the lure of another year around his UF brothers that was too much to pass by.
“Just being around the guys, the environment, the family, the bond and the relationships you create,” he said. “People ask me, ‘What do I get out of it?’ It’s the same answer I’ve always given. I enjoy helping guys achieve and have success and being a strong example on and off the court.”
On Wednesday, Edwards was back on the floor with his individual instruction group, with White and his assistants getting their first look at their new player’s work ethic.
And vice versa.
Like the bulk of his teammates, Edwards is used to the Donovan way. But also like his teammates, he’s sensing a lot of positive things about the transition to the new guy.
“The vibe I get from the guys, they all seem excited,” Edwards said. “Even though there is an element of unknown, they’re embracing it and ready to buy in and do whatever Coach White and his staff ask of them. It makes me excited to embark on this season; on this next phase of my life.”
Updated: 3:29pm, August 24
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Asked to relive his greatest basketball memory, Justin Leon didn’t hesitate.
“My high school Senior Night,” he said.
Leon then told of how his father made a rare appearance at one of his son’s basketball games at Conway (Ark.) High. The coaches drew up a play with higlight-reel potential they intended to run for their star player; that they intended for him to bring the fans -- and his father -- to their feet.
That play is still in Leon’s cell phone. Check out No. 11 below. It's a little grainy, but you'll get the picture (and, yes, that's him on the back end of the video, 94 feet away from the previous play, racing back to block a shot).
Leon smiles as he watches the play. He smiles when he talks about basketball. He probably smiles when he’s asleep at night.
“That’s just the kind of kid he is,” UF coach Mike White said of the newest Gators basketball player on the block. “And he’s happy as can be to be here.”
Again, the smile confirms that.
Leon, the 6-foot-8, 200-pound transfer forward from Shawnee (Ill.) Community College, has been in perpetual glee mode since arriving for orientation last week while strolling the campus and watched the students file in as UF summer turned to bustling fall. It was all quite the sight when you consider Leon, a junior college All-American, came to Gainesville from a Southern Illinois city of just 449 people, per the 2010 Census. He met his new teammates for the first time Sunday night, attended his first classes Monday and was then get indoctrinated into strength and conditioning coordinator Preston Greene’s offseason methods.
It's all new. It's all great.
“It’s crazy how it’s all come together,” said Leon, a rare lefty on the wing. “I truly believe God had a plan for me. I don’t know how else you can explain it.”
Leon averaged 21.5 points and 10 rebounds a game, one of just four JuCo players in the country to rank among the top 10 nationally in both scoring and rebounding while shooting 50.4 percent from the floor. White and his staff at Louisiana Tech saw Leon as an ideal fit for their full-court pressing and trapping ways.
When White left LaTech to take the UF job in the spring, Leon had every intention of honoring his letter of intent, assuming assistant coach Dusty May was promoted to the head job. But the Bulldogs went in a different direction, May joined the rest of White’s staff at Florida, and Leon asked for and was granted a release.
Arkansas, Ole Miss, Indiana and Kansas State all were in pursuit, but Leon already had a comfort level with the new Gators staff. The decision was an easy one.
For both sides.
“Great athlete, high motor,” UF assistant Darris Nichols said of Leon. “And I mean a really high motor.”
Just where Leon fits into the 2015-16 plan is something that will play out during preseason practice and beyond. He projects primarily at the "4" position, where seniors Dorian Finney-Smith and Alex Murphy alreadyb figure prominently. The coaches expect Finney-Smith to have an All-Southeastern Conference type of campaign and are hopeful Murphy can build on an encouraging offseason that he capped playing for Finland in the World University Games where he was the team's leading scorer.
Leon, meanwhile, is placing no expectations on himself. In fact, he’s open to anything.
“I believe I belong on this level. I’m a player who is full of energy. I can go and keep going. I will run all day,” Leon said. “If the coaches want me to go try and get 10 rebounds, I will do that. If they want me to be a vocal guy and cheer on the team, I will do that to. Whatever it is they need, that's what I will do.”
When he says so you, you believe it.
He says it, of course, with a smile.
ORLANDO -- Dan Cross is one of the best basketball players in University of Florida history, twice helping lead the Gators to the NCAA Tournament, including as point guard for the program's first Final Four team.
But he missed lining up against Michael White by just one season.
Cross left UF following the ’94-95 campaign, mere months before White showed up as a freshman point guard at Ole Miss for ’95-96 season.
“But I remember him,” White said. “And I’m glad I missed him.”
They didn’t miss each other Monday night in Orlando, where White, the successor to UF icon Billy Donovan, made his first booster stop when he spoke to a Central Florida Gator Club crowd of about 175 at the Citrus Bowl.
Cross, 43, settled in the Orlando area where he works as a life's skills mentor for former athletes and oversees an AAU program. He was invited to the Varsity Room to introduce the new UF coach.
“I’m sure we’ll talk in a bit about the kind of players we’re looking for,” White said. “Well, I’m looking for that, right there.”
He was pointing at Cross.
The Gator Great didn’t need the shoutout from White to get in the new coach's corner. He already was there.
“Obviously, the expectations are very high and the pressure on him to live up to those expectations -- not just in this state, but around the country -- is probably a little unfair and unrealistic,” said Cross, the school's No. 15 all-time scorer with 1,451 points and two-time first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection for Coach Lon Kruger who averaged 16.7 points over his final two UF seasons. “But I also believe Coach White’s expectations for his program exceed ours, which says something about him.”
White, who will speak at Lake County Gator Club Tuesday night and has stops at the Clay County and Palm Beach clubs next week, brushed over some opening remarks, running down his roster and providing an update of his first whirlwind three months in Gainesville. Players will begin trickling back to campus late this week, while UF’s newest player -- forward Justin Leon, out of Conway, Ark., by way of Shawnee (Ill.) Community College -- reported over the weekend for orientation.
The squad’s first full meeting will be Sunday night, with individual workouts and conditioning tipping off Monday, the same day classes begin.
No wasted time.
“We’re really looking forward to getting this thing going,” White said.
During his 30-minute talk, White made it clear his UF teams will play fast, just like his Louisiana Tech teams that were among the nation’s best in turnovers forced and 3-points attempted the last four years. The Gators will be pressing after every made basket, free throw or dead ball. At least that’s the plan.
“Love hearing that and it’s what players want to hear,” Cross said. “Now only is Coach White saying the right things, but he definitely has a system he believes in and he’s going to implement that system.”
In 19 seasons, Donovan reached the NCAA Tournament 14 times -- nearly tripling the school’s five all-time NCAA berths before he arrived -- to go with six SEC championships and four league tournament titles. That’s a lot of tradition from where very little tradition existed.
And a lot to uphold.
“It’s a mentality that you just have to have and believe in,” said Cross, who in 1991 arrived at traditionless UF and helped carve out the first nicks of historical success. “He’s not just replacing the greatest coach at Florida, but one of the greatest ever, but it’s a challenge he’s embraced. I believe wholeheartedly that he’s the right choice.”
Updated: 5:32pm, August 17
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Preston Greene has made it something of a tradition.
Set to start his sixth season as Florida basketball’s strength and conditioning coach, Greene (right) is a results-oriented guy -- what strength coach isn’t, right? -- and he wants his players to see results, embrace them and use them as motivation to produce further results.
Obviously, the tactics have a track record.
See “Prather, Casey” for example.
Better yet, see some of the data on UF’s current players, especially the three freshmen after just six weeks working with Greene and assistant Sean Ferguson. The pictures will below tell the story, as do some of the random numbers.
And the Gators are far from done with their training for Coach Mike White's first season.
“We're going to get after it when these guys get back from break for fall semester,” Greene said. “Summer B was just the appetizer. We’ve still got the main course and that take us into October.”
In the interim:
* Sophomore point guard Chris Chiozza is up 15 pounds, has increased his bench press from 195 to 240 and his vertical jump by 2 1/2 inches.
* Sophomore center John Egbunu, who sat out last season after transferring from South Florida, has decreased his body fat by 3 1/2 percent, down to 12.5 (having lost 18 pounds of fat). He more than doubled his chin-ups, going from seven to 16. Note: If that doesn’t impress you, think what it takes for a 6-foot-11, 255-pounder to pull himself up 16 times.
* Fifth-year senior Dorian Finney-Smith played at 210 last season. He’s 226 now (and it’s a very good 226).
As for the freshmen (and one very maturing upperclassmen), the below Before/After pictures speak for themselves.
* Freshman shooting guard KeVaughn Allen was the MVP of the state Arkansas state championship game last season and the state's 2015 Gatorade Player of the Year. He's expected to compete for a starting job at the two-guard spot as a rookie. He looked pretty toned when he got here in July. Looks even better now.
Freshman center Kevarrius Hayes has the quick-twitch athletic skills White and his staff look for to make their pressing and trapping style work, but he definitely has to get bigger and stronger if he's going to be a factor as a first-year post player in the Southeastern Conference. Hayes, senior class president and honors student at Live Oak Suwanne High, clearly is smart enough to understand that.
Freshman Keith Stone is a very good shooter, but to be truly effective in the White system his quickness and ability to guard both front court positions will be key. Stone came in with some baby fat, a good chunk of which already has been shed.
And then there's fourth-year junior DeVon Walker, who blew out his knee last summer and (obviously) did his part on the rehab comeback trail. Walker figures prominently in the team's plans for '15-16. The transformation his body has undergone since arriving as a 178-pound freshman from Winter Haven in 2012 is remarkable. He's now weights 214.
Updated: 5:05pm, August 6
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Football practice started this week, as everyone knows, but a little baseball practice is on the mind of a former University of Florida star.
Kevin Carter, once an All-America defensive end with the Gators and later an All-Pro with the St. Louis Rams, can’t remember the last time he tossed a baseball, but he plans on some playing catch with his son before throwing out the first pitch Saturday night when the Tampa Bay Rays host the New York Mets at Tropicana Field.
It’s the second “Chomp at the Trop,” held in conjunction with Gator Boosters and the Tampa Gator Club, as the Rays paying homage to Bay area UF fans with various merchandise and videos tributes. Note: Deadline to purchase discount tickets is midnight Thursday.
The Carter famly (along with wife Shima and 14-year-old son Zion) settled in Tampa after he played his final two NFL seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He'll make "Chomp" night in St. Petersburg officially orange and blue when he takes the mound for pre-game.
“I’m honored and humbled by the fact that I would be someone who the Rays would deem worthy to throw out a first pitch,” Carter said. “You think about all the people you’ve seen throw out first pitches; they’re usually celebrities or people who have accomplished amazing things. It’s just cool that someone would think enough of me to even ask.”
In the football arena, Carter definitely accomplished some amazing things. He starred at Florida from 1991-94, part of three Southeastern Conference championship teams. He was the No. 6 pick in the ’95 NFL Draft by the Rams, with whom he won a Super Bowl after the ’99 season, and retired in 2009 after 14 seasons tied for 26th in league history with 104.5 sacks. Carter is now a college football studio analyst with ESPN.
Still, his measured approach to Saturday's call from the bullpen is a little different than the one taken a year ago by his former UF teammate, Brad Culpepper, who showed up for his first-pitch assignment donning baseball pants. He even harkened back to his days as a prep star on the diamond by joking, “I get the first inning, right?”
“That’s hilarious,” Carter said. “And it sounds totally like Brad.”
Actually, Carter knows that many a first-pitch invitee over the years have ended up on SportsCenter for doing something other than throwing a strike.
Take 50 cent, for example.
Consider that Carter's nightmare scenario.
“As long as it doesn’t hit the ground and it’s something the catcher can handle, I’ll be all right,” Carter said. “I might just have to lob it in there, though. It's not that I'm worried about embarrassing myself -- I haven’t thrown a baseball in years -- but it would definitely embarrass my son if I end up on the news.”
Speaking of being in the news, the Florida football team is very much in it this week, as the Jim McElwain era begins with the first practices of training camp. A conversation with Carter would not be complete without getting his analyst's take on what lies ahead for his alma mater under a new head coach.
The way Carter sees it, McElwain brings a balance to the program that's been missing.
“One of the things that’s been lacking in the Florida program has been that certain pedigree on the offensive side of the ball. That teaching and offensive scheme that is centralized and starts from the time you get there and is maintained until the time you leave,” Carter said. “Continuity makes a difference as young players increase their IQ for the game.”
The UF defense has a big head start on the offense, thanks to what former Coach Will Muschamp put in place, Carter said. Carter played two years (2005-06) for the Miami Dolphins under Nick Saban and thus was in the defensive room when Muschamp was linebackers coach there in ’05.
Carter has tremendous respect for Muschamp’s knowledge for defense, especially when it comes to fundamentals, technique and details. Those are things that stick with players (no matter the coach) and can be nurtured by the new staff.
“I don’t think Florida has bad players on offense. They have enough to actually make a splash with this new coach,” Carter said. “But they already have a defense that should be one of the best SEC. That will help.”
Updated: 12:20pm, August 4
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The University Athletic Association and UF Department of Emergency Management joined forces last week in conducting a mock crisis situation in and around Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
The five-hour exercise -- dubbed “Safe Swamp” -- involved volunteers with simulated injuries, local law enforcement agencies, fire departments and other public safety personnel, with UF police stationed in the stadium area to direct pedestrian and vehicle traffic.
“Nobody wants a disaster to happen, nobody wants anything bad to happen, but you really have to be prepared for it,” said Chip Howard, UAA executive associate athletic director for internal affairs. “We go to great lengths here at the University of Florida to prepare for that, so this was a great opportunity to get everyone together and test the plan.”
GatorVision was there to chronicle UF’s all-hands-on-deck public safety game day plan.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Michael White hits the Gator Club circuit this month.
Florida's new basketball coach, who just put a wrap on his summer workouts, has all four of his Gator Club appearances set for the month of August. White, who left Louisana Tech in May to replace Billy Donovan, will make the first of his speaking engagements on Aug. 17 in Orlando, where the Central Florida Gator Club will convene at the Florida Citrus Bowl, beginning at 6 p.m.
On the night of Aug. 18, White will call on the Lake Country Gator Club at the Eustis Community Building.
White's other two stops will be the following week, at the Clay County Gator Club on Aug. 24 and Palm Beach County Gator Club on Aug. 25.
For details on all four appeareances, visit the UF Alumni Association page here.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Weather (and permit) permitting, the Florida Gators will be practicing indoors at some point this summer.
UF coach Jim McElwain got an all-encompassing facilities question during his podium appearance Monday at Southeastern Conference Media Days, with special attention focused on the state of the $15-17 million practice complex -- “a long-need and beautiful facility,” he called it -- going up on the site of the current practice fields, across from the O'Connell Center parking garage.
“It sounds like we’ll at least be able to get permit to be able to go spend a couple hours there as we go through two-a-days,” said McElwain, whose team opens fall drills Aug. 6. “That’s something that’s really exciting and it’s exciting for our guys.”
The indoor football facility is just a chunk of more than $100 million worth of University Athletic Assocation projects currently in the works. The football team not only will benefit from the new air-conditioned edifice this year, but also renovated dormitories and improved nutrition departments, both of which will be in place for fall 2015
And then there’s the $25 million renovation of the academic center at the Office of Student Life, a gem that Athletic Directory Jeremy Foley has trumpeted as a "game-changer" for the Gators.
“It’s about the players, it’s about helping them,” McElwain said. “We’re moving in the right direction -- and we got a long ways to go -- but it’s good to see that those things are happening.”
UF softball coach Tim Walton, alongside 2015 Women's College World Series MVP Lauren Haeger, addresses the crowd at Pressly Stadium during the team's June 4 pep rally celebrating a second straight NCAA championship.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Tim Walton’s needs a traveling secretary to manage his calendar these days.
“Just been running around, man,” Walton said. “On the move.”
Since leading the Florida softball team to a second straight Women’s College World Series title five weeks ago, Walton has taken a couple recruiting spins (with more to come this month), worked as an assistant coach with the Team USA’s U19 team, returned to campus for some Gators camps and next week is off to California for a speaking engagement and then a little side trip Wednesday to the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles.
ESPYS, here he comes.
“That should be pretty cool,” he said.
Walton and wife Samantha will accompany Lauren Haeger to the glitzy, star-studded event. Haeger, whose pitching/hitting exploits were at the forefront of UF’s run to the NCAA championship, is nominated for a pair of ESPYs: Best Female College Athlete and Best Championship Performance.
Haeger, who was in Los Angeles last week as a finalist for the Honda Award (given to the nation’s best all-around athlete), has a reasonable chance to win the former (her chief competition being California swimmer Missy Franklin and Connecticut basketball player Breanna Stewart).
She has zero chance to win the latter; not against LeBron James, Madison Bumgarner and American Pharoah.
“She’s up against one of the greatest basketball players of all time and one of the greatest race horses of all time,” Walton said. “I think there’s something comparable with Madison Bumgarner and how they both put their teams on their shoulders, but obviously that’s a different level. But still.”
Bumgarner, the San Francisco Giants ace and reigning World Series MVP, is one of the better hitting pitchers in the major leagues, but he’s yet to be talked about in the same sentence as Babe Ruth.
Haeger has that going for her.
Screen shots of Haeger and Ruth -- the only bat-and-ball players ever to hit at least 70 home runs and win at least 70 games as a pitcher -- were prominent during the WCWS and huge in Haeger earning her national acclaim. That notoriety, though, came long after she was a first-round pick of the pro softball Dallas Charge (for whom she’s been playing the last month), and after she began taking the Gators on their eventual ride to Oklahoma City with a masterful run through the NCAA regional and Super Regional in both the circle and batter's box.
For Walton, seeing Haeger rack up the headlines has been a blast and somewhat parallels what pitcher Hannah Rogers enjoyed after a similar rampage (minus the bat) in the postseason a year ago. Rogers (right) got the ESPY invite also, but Walton didn’t make that trip.
He’s not missing this one.
“I don’t want to just coach this team anymore. I want to be more involved with things they’re doing and accomplishing. I want to show my support for them,” Walton said. “”Lauren, the last few weeks, she’s been living a fast life -- with pro ball, the Honda, now the ESPYs -- and she’s probably just trying to keep up with a lot stuff ... but it’s a lot of fun stuff. And for a woman, playing sports at the level’s she’s played, this could possibly be the highlights of her athlete career, right here, right now, and I think it’s fantastic. I want to be there to enjoy it too.”
The Florida program has been spoiled the last two years with the individual achievements of Rogers and Haeger. As good as, say, first-team All-American and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Kelsey Stewart might be, there are no guarantees she’ll be on the red-carpet circuit this time next year.
"You just never know," he said.
So Walton, between recruiting visits and Team USA and camps, is going to soak it all in. All of it.
>>> UPDATED <<<
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When little-known forward Justin Leon signed with Florida last month, the Kansas junior college prospect was hailed as the first Gators recruit of the Michael White era. Technically, that was accurate.
But when White replaced Billy Donovan two months ago, one of his first orders of business was re-recruiting Donovan’s incoming recruits; the four incoming freshmen who actually inked to play for Florida thinking were coming to play for the future Hall-of-Famer.
White went 3-for-4 on that endeavor, landing the three players that best fit how the new Gators coach want\s to play. That trio -- guard KeVaughn Allen (right), center Kevarrius Hayes and forward Keith Stone -- reported for the Summer B session last week, began classes this week and tipped off the start of preseason workouts with White and his staff Monday.
All three will have a chance to contribute in some capacity this season, with Leon, the 6-foot-8, 200-pounder from Shawnee Community College where he averaged 21.5 points and 10 rebounds per game, due to arrive for the start of fall semester classes in August.
One of these guys looks like an instant-impact type.
“I think I’m a good player,” said Allen, a soft-spoken kid with a very loud game that twice earned him Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Arkansas. “I play fast, I play hard on offense and defense, and I like to get my teammates involved.”
The 6-foot-3, 175-pound Allen averaged 25.2 points, 6.2 rebounds 4.7 assists in leading North Little Rock to three consecutive Class 7A state titles. He has long arms, a 38 1/2-inch vertical jump, good range from distance and the ability to get his own shot. Candidly, he looks like the Gators’ best all-around guard prospect since Bradley Beal arrived in 2011, but this is only individual instruction season (and, no, no one is comparing him to Beal).
Allen, though, is armed with the “quick twitch” athleticism White looks for. His being here, trusting in the new coach and the vision put forth, is a big plus.
"I'm excited," Allen said. "I just want to come to the gym, work as hard as I can and prove to them that I'm here to work and help the team anyway possible."
When Donovan bolted for the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder in April, there were plenty of media outlets reporting Allen would ask out of his national letter-of-intent and throw his name back in the recruiting pool. That’s when White went to work.
Like he did with his other incomings, White paid all of them in-person visits, showed them tape of the way his up-tempo, pressing teams played the last four seasons at Louisiana Tech, and went for the hard sell.
“The things he was telling me about the program he runs, the way he would do things, I believed in him. I believed in the system and I thought I would do well,” Allen said. “He talked about how he allows his players to play, get up and down the court, have some freedom. I just felt it would fit me.”
That pitch worked for Hayes and Stone, also.
“I was a little hesitant at first, but once I got to meet Coach White I saw he was a good guy who had some really good intentions for Florida basketball,” said Hayes (left), the 6-9, 190-pounder who averaged nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds per game at nearby Live Oak (Fla.) Suwannee High. “His plans for me pretty much matched up with Billy D’s plans, as far as me being a front-court runner who could pressure the ball. And he said he liked my motor and knew I could run and keep up with his fast-paced offense. Those were things I wanted to hear.”
The 6-8, 240-pound Stone was something of a late-bloomer on the recruiting circuit. He did not sign early, but committed to UF last fall anticipaing scholarship would be there for him in April. It was, but ultimately the coach he committed to was not.
“Coach White said he would use me similarly to how Coach Donovan was going to use me,” said Stone (right), out of Deerfield Beach, Fla. “I can play inside-out, I can handle the ball and I’ve got a nice shooting touch. Now, I’m just excited to be here and to finally take the next step.”
That means on-court drills, but also indoctrination into strength and conditioning coordinator Preston Greene’s program.
Allen already has a college body (heck, he may even have a defensive back’s body) and it will only become more impressive. Hayes needs upper body strength, while Stone has some toning up to do. Their bodies will look much different come October.
Their overall games, too.
“I’m just excited to watch them,” White said. “The first week or so will be more of sitting back and obviously pushing them to work very, very hard, but more than anything else evaluating exactly who they are as players.”
FREE THROWS: The Gators, of course, went 16-17 last season, marking the program's first losing record since 1998. In 2015-16, in addition to a new coaching staff, Florida will roll out seven players who are either new or did not play a minute on last year’s team. Clearly, the new look Gators will extend well beyond White. ... Guard Brandone Francis is one of those new guys. He sat out last fall due to academic reasons and when he was cleared to join the team (for practice only) in December he was around 223 pounds. He’s 203 now. He’s also 6-5 (with some moxie) and figures to bring a physical presence at the position that’s not been seen here in some time. He can also play point guard at that size and last year during practices flashed some spectacular no-look dishes. ... The big men’s workout session is a 3-man class of all new guys: Sophomore John Egbunu, the transfer from South Florida who sat out last season, sophomore Schuyler Rimmer, who transferred from Stanford in midseason who turns eligible after the first semester, and Hayes. Egbunu, at 6-11, 250 pounds, is a toy the likes of which White never got to play with at LA Tech. White is intrigued at the prospect of having a big-time post presence in his system. Egbunu averaged 7.4 and 6.5 rebounds as a freshman at USF in ’13-14. ... Fourth-year junior swingman DeVon Walker tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last July, so the one-year anniversary of that injury is approaching. Walker, who averaged 2.4 points and 1.2 rebounds off the bench for UF’s Final Four team two seasons ago, got a medical redshirt last season. Trainer David “Duke” Werner is pleased with Walker’s progress, but is being cautious as far as full-go clearance over the summer. No rush. The focus is full-go come fall. said Wednesday that Walker has been cleared for full-contact activities, including pick-up basketball with teammates. Note: Those who recall the skinny sophomore Walker will be surprised when the new, more filled-out version unveils himself. ... The basketball facility’s $1.2 million weight room renovation that began in April is on schedule for completion (above). The area will nearly double its lifting space (with room for additional equipment), plus add a nutrition bar and expanded office space for the strength staff.
Lauren Haeger and Kytra Hunter mug for the camera after Monday night's Honda Award presentation in Los Angeles, honoring the NCAA's top female athletes in their respective sports. [Photos by Robert Beck]
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- First, some perspective.
In the history of University of Florida women’s athletics, no Gator had ever been named a Honda Award finalist until softball superstar Lauren Haeger heard her name called Monday night.
“I mean, what do you say to that?” Haeger asked.
And in the decorated history of UF women’s athletics, only two Gators -- a pair of orange and blue icons in swimmer Tracy Caulkens (in 1982, ’83 and ’84, who twice won the Cup before it went to a semifinals format) and tennis assassin Lisa Raymond -- had been named Honda nominee in their respective sport twice until gymnast Kytra Hunter joined that elite group earlier this month. In 2012, Hunter became just the second UF freshman so honored.
“Honestly, when I look back on my collegiate career, I don’t think there’s any more I could have gotten out of it,” Hunter said. “It makes me so proud.”
Haeger and Hunter, who together gathered a wall of hardware for themselves and their teams the last four years, spoke late Monday night from Los Angeles after the Collegiate Women Sports Award show on CBS Sports honoring the 12 best athletes in their respective NCAA-sanction sports (those in attendance pictured below).
Missy Franklin, who claimed five titles while leading the University of California to the 2015 NCAA championship, was awarded the Honda Cup as 2015 Woman Athlete of the Year. Franklin, a 14-time All-American and Olympic gold-medalist, was chosen over a semifinal trio that also included Connecticut basketball superstar Breanna Stewart and Haeger, both of whom led their teams to national titles and edged a paddle wheel of superstars to reach the final three.
For Haeger, the night was the latest stop in whirlwind few weeks ignited earlier this month when she both pitched and hit the Gators to a second straight Women’s College World Series crown. Haeger, the senior from Peoria, Ariz., became the first player in NCAA history to reach at least 70 wins as a pitcher for a career and match that number with 70 homers.
Oh, and since we started this post with perspective, we might as well remind anyone who wasn’t watching the WCWS that the only other person ever to play a bat-and-ball sport and go 70-and-70 was named Babe Ruth.
Maybe for that very reason (not to mention she went 32-2 and led her team in homers and RBI for the season, plus posted a 4-1 mark and ERA of 1.18 while hitting .571 at the WCWS) Haeger’s next stop will be another trip to California for the ESPY Awards in July. She is nominated in two categories: Best Female College Athlete and Best Championship Performance. In the latter category, her competition includes -- get this -- LeBron James in the NBA Finals, Madison Bumgarner in the World Series and Triple Crown-winning thoroughbred American Pharoah.
“When I heard that, I was like, ‘What? Tell me again, who am I? I’m Lauren, right?’ ” she said. “I don’t know. It’s just something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”
The same can be said for her most recent excursion to L.A.
Haeger, who earlier this month started a stint as a rookie with the Dallas Charge of National Pro Fastpitch, joined Hunter for the trip west and spent a couple days with the absolute best college female athletes in their respective sports.
“It’s been a lot of fun just to connect with all the women here and to listen to some of their inspirational stories and the adversity they had to overcome,” Hunter said. “Just having the insight from their different points of view, being able to share their stories, will be something I can take away. I really do feel like I made some close friends here.”
Hunter and Haeger were already friends, having arrived at UF together as freshmen in 2011. Though they didn’t have much time to hang out during their spring seasons, both watched each other dominant their craft.
Haeger went to many a gymnastic meet. Hunter watched Haeger set down batters and collect extra base hits on television. Combined, they won five national champions with their teams, with gymnastics claiming the last three and softball the last two.
Both will return to UF this fall and are on schedule to graduate in the coming academic year; Hunter in December with a degree in Food and Resource Economics; Haeger next spring in Family Youth and Community Science.
Their images and/or achievements will be emblazoned throughout their athletic facilities. Forever.
“I know how hard I had to work, so I have such respect for Lauren because I know what it took for her to be the best,” Hunter said.
In Haeger’s case, as Florida’s only Honda Award finalist in its 39-year history, a case can be made she is THE BEST Gators athlete, well, maybe ever. That’s a debate left for others.
Without question, though, both Haeger and Hunter belong in it.
“That’s just crazy,” Haeger said. “For me, it’s about the work. I just go out there and do what I love to do, work hard, and the rest just sort of falls into place. But to leave a mark on a such a great university like Florida, that’s just really cool. I don’t have the words yet.”