clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

After back-to-back titles, Florida softball is poised to be a dynasty under Tim Walton

Florida has the last two titles in the sport — and a fantastic roster going forward.


Three programs have won two straight national championship in Division I softball: Arizona, UCLA, and, after Wednesday night's win, Florida.

Florida's the only school to pull off that feat this decade, with Arizona's last back-to-back run coming in 2006 and 2007, but the Wildcats and Bruins, unquestionably the gold standards of the sport — combined, the two programs have 19 NCAA titles, even with UCLA losing one to NCAA sanctions, and the rest of the sport has captured 14 — each have three back-to-back crowns in their history, and UCLA's three straight titles from 1988 to 1990 remains the longest in the sports history. (Or tied for it, anyway: John F. Kennedy College in Nebraska, which closed in 1975, won the first three AIAW titles awarded in fastpitch softball from 1969 to 1971.)

Florida is now in position to tie that UCLA record — and take third place all-time in total NCAA Division I national championships — if it can three-peat in 2016.

If it does, there will be no doubt that Florida is the newest dynasty in the sport.

Repeating isn't a given, of course, and even competing at the highest levels won't be easy for the Gators in 2016, given the biggest loss from this 2015 team. Lauren Haeger leaves Florida as a Ruthian figure, yes, but also as inarguably the greatest player in program history. She was the only player whose accomplishments merited three pages in the 2015 Florida softball media guide (PDF) — and that was a Ruth-less time for Haeger.

Since then, here's just a bit of what Haeger has done:

  • Had one of the 10 best seasons in terms of slugging percentage in program history
  • Had one of the 10 best seasons in terms of on-base percentage in program history
  • Had one of the 10 best seasons in terms of home runs in program history — her third such campaign, making her one of two Gators (Francesca Enea) with three of the top 10
  • Set program records for home runs, RBI, total bases, and walks
  • Tied Hannah Rogers for the seventh-best season in ERA (1.23) in program history
  • Had the second-winningest season in terms of win percentage in program history
  • Became the first Florida pitcher to win 30 games and lose fewer than five in a season
  • Finished her Florida career fourth in wins and win perentage, and sixth in strikeouts
  • Finished her career with 23 shutouts in 86 starts
  • Had essentially the best Women's College World Series ever:

That's not even all of what Haeger's done, of course, but that short list is staggering. Haeger goes down as one of the five best pitchers in Florida history, and both the best slugger and arguably the best hitter — reasonable minds could choose Kelsey Stewart or Michelle Moultrie — in Florida history, and her 2015 season is inarguably the greatest a Gator has ever had.

She's not coming back.

But Florida's replaced more than Haeger before — and it's not replacing that much more than Haeger this offseason.

Lest we forget, Florida was already tasked with replacing one of the best pitchers in school history this season — and all Haeger did was match Rogers' best regular season and postseason campaigns in one year. And Haeger was a fantastic replacement for prior Florida sluggers Megan Bush, Kelsey Bruder, and Brittany Schutte, who left Florida ranked No. 1, No. 3, and No. 4 on the program's all-time home run list, and each got passed up by Haeger in the seasons since.

Florida had to replace Bush and Bruder after the 2011 season, and its run total dipped by more than 200 plate crossings in 2012 as a result. Since that year, which also featured a two-and-out Gainesville Regional exit and a team implosion, the Gators have rebounded at bat, with their last three seasons all among the top five in runs scored in Florida history.

No other departing player did even half of what Haeger did at Florida. Of her five fellow seniors, only Bailey Castro had more than 63 at-bats in 2015 — and while Castro was dynamite in the regular season, leading Florida with 16 home runs, she had a forgettable Women's College World Series, going hitless and getting benched for the relatively light-hitting Janell Wheaton in Game 3. Kathlyn — Katie, let's be real — Medina was the only senior other than Haeger to start all 67 games for Florida, but she was a defensive specialist, racking up just 50 at-bats while playing fantastic defense at shortstop. While Medina's contributions at short have been underrated for her entire career, Florida trading off her slick glove skills for a better bat might not hurt that much, especially without Haeger around to double as her own designated player.

The rest of Florida's seniors — outfielders Jessica Damico, Briana Little, and Francesca Martinez — were playing support roles by season's end. (Little's three-homer, nine-RBI game against Mercer early in the season was sensational — but she finished the year with four homers and 15 RBI, and a brutal .175 batting average.) All of them were shifted to those roles by more talented underclassmen — and those underclassmen could all be better in 2016, in theory.

And Tim Walton will have more talented young players to plug into his roster, as well. College softball recruiting rankings are, perhaps predictably, somewhat difficult to find, but Florida's got the No. 2 recruiting class in the country according to Full Count Softball, and the seven-member class is headlined by outfielder Amanda Lorenz and hurler Kelly Barnhill, ranked the No. 1 and No. 2 recruits in the country.

Without Haeger and Castro, Florida may lack for power — though surges from underclassmen who slumped, like Kirsti Merritt and Taylor Schwarz, could make up a fair bit of the difference — but the Gators will assuredly be sound on the mound. Delanie Gourley and Aleshia Ocasio will duel to be Florida's ace, with Barnhill likely to be the Gators' third pitcher, and Gourley, despite a 2015 season spent as Florida's de facto closer, would seem to have the edge, if one exists, on Ocasio, a Freshman All-American. And all three pitchers for Florida in 2016 might have better "stuff," to use the technical term, than did Haeger, who went from excellent pitcher to great one in 2015 because of her approach and command, rather than any improvement on her solid if unspectacular repertoire.

Florida will once more have to wade through the treacherous waters of the SEC in 2016, but the conference's gauntlet of great teams doubles as a blessing and a curse. The Gators will likely be either favorites or co-favorites with Auburn to win the SEC, but even if they don't — and Florida's failed to even make the final of the SEC Tournament over the last two years — the strength of schedule derived from the league could keep Florida, which also schedules rigorously in non-conference play, within the discussion for a national seed. SEC teams made up more than half of the top 10 in final RPI in 2015, and eight SEC teams finished in the top 25 of the statistic.

With Walton at the helm, Florida has proven not only to be the master of that SEC, but a national brand capable of recruiting and playing with any program. Haeger hailed from Arizona, and more than half of the Gators' starting lineup on Wednesday night was from outside Florida; though the Sunshine State would likely rank among the top five states in America in terms of talent produced, it would be folly to try to build an elite college team without Californians like Nicole DeWitt and Aubree Munro.

And Walton was reeling in big fish like Stewart, a native Kansan, from their small ponds, and molding them into sharks in the water at Florida even before he had the promise of a national title to sell to recruits.

Florida is set up to compete for those national championships for as long as Walton remains in Gainesville. And while Gators fans clearly recall Rhonda Faehn positioning her Gators of the gym for dynastic success, only to depart for a job with USA Gymnastics, there's no equivalent move for Walton to make, because a) softball won't be an Olympic sport again until 2020, and likely won't require a full-time coach and b) he's already coached at the professional level, having coached the Kissimmee-based USSSA Pride in National Pro Fastpitch from 2010 to 2014 ... and winning back-to-back titles over the last two seasons.

Walton, in other words, had experience winning back-to-back crowns before he helped Florida do so. It is fortunate foreshadowing for the Gators, perhaps, that his Pride also won three of those titles.