For years, the Florida Gators have had one of the finest rotations in college softball. If they’re going to have that for years to come, it will be without the woman who developed most of those aces.
Florida pitching coach and associate head coach Jennifer Rocha is leaving for the same positions at Oklahoma, the Gators announced Wednesday, in a release that features both head coach Tim Walton singing Rocha’s praises and Rocha thanking Walton and Florida for her more than a decade in Gainesville.
“Spending 19 of the past 20 years sharing the same dugout with a person I call a true professional and a friend has been a wonderful opportunity.” Head Coach Tim Walton said. “We’ve had many terrific memories on and off the field. Jennifer, Paul and baby Ellie have been like family to us. We are definitely wishing the Rocha family all of our best.”
”My family and I feel incredibly blessed to have spent the last 13 years at the University of Florida, participating in the growth and development of outstanding student-athletes.” Rocha said. “Words cannot adequately express my gratitude to Tim Walton, the Walton family, Scott Stricklin, Lynda Tealer and Jeremy Foley for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful community. Finally, I want to thank all those who contribute to making the Gators great including the UAA staff, all the equipment managers, the Gator Diamond Club and Gator Nation.”
Rocha also issued a single tweet on her decision.
I am filled with so much emotion as I walk by faith in a new direction. Tim, his family and I will forever be connected through the foundation of friendship, trust and championships we built together.— Jennifer Rocha (@coachjro) July 18, 2018
If Rocha isn’t the best pitching coach in college softball, she’s damn close. She’s recruited and developed every Gators hurler from Stacey Nelson to Kelly Barnhill over her time in Gainesville, all of which has been spent under Walton — and while Walton has long been the brains behind Florida’s hitting approach, Rocha has been the quiet mastermind and steely spine of the pitching staff, nurturing a slew of different pitchers with varied repertoires and mental makeups into special players.
Rocha is also more than qualified to ultimately take over a program of her own — much like former Walton assistant Kenny Gajewski, now the head coach at Oklahoma State, she has almost certainly learned everything one can learn or needs to know about leading a program at Walton’s side — and a seemingly lateral move to Oklahoma might be a better way for her to get a head job at an elite program than remaining at Florida. Walton turns 46 in August and isn’t going anywhere, having just received a 10-year extension; Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso, while still certainly young enough at 56 to have a decade or more ahead of her and established enough at Oklahoma to remain there as long as she wants, is likely closer to retirement than Walton is.
And while Rocha has had success with mining all over the country for aces as a recruiter, Oklahoma is her home turf. She, like Walton, played at Oklahoma as an undergraduate after a stint at a California junior college, and she, like Walton, won a national championship with the Sooners as a player. But her time with Walton didn’t actually overlap in Norman until the late 1990s, when both were on Gasso’s staff — Walton as an assistant, Rocha as a graduate assistant. Rocha and Walton have both now spent more time in Gainesville than Norman, but the pull of the alma mater is hard to deny.
And so Florida will be left to find a replacement for Rocha, arguably the best assistant coach Florida employed across all of its sports. Walton is up to the task, assuredly, but it’s a substantial one.