GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For the first time in five years, the Florida softball team won’t be making a trip to the Women’s College World Series.
UF’s 1-0 loss to South Florida at Pressly Stadium in the championship game of the NCAA Gainesville Regional on Sunday ended its season and capped a bizarre weekend for the sixth-ranked Gators (48-13). It began with the announcement that coach Tim Walton had suspended three starters indefinitely, a decision that undoubtedly affected the team mentally in an opening-round regional loss to Florida Gulf Coast on Friday and kept the Gators from forcing a second game on Sunday.
So instead of getting ready for the Super Regionals, Walton is trying to make sure everyone understands that he booted sophomore shortstop Cheyenne Coyle, freshman third baseman Sami Fagan, and sophomore outfielder Kasey Fagan because it was the best thing for the team -- even though he knew taking the team’s leading hitter and two of its top four RBI producers out of the lineup was going to make it very difficult to reach a fifth consecutive WCWS.
"I think at the end of the day, it’s all about your team," said Walton, who has not given a reason for the suspensions. "And it’s all about the program. It’s all about the University of Florida. It’s all about the Gators. I’m not going to say too many words, but that’s what it’s all about. That’s the most important part of being a leader of this team. It’s all about the Gators."
Florida was listless in a 2-1 loss to Florida Gulf Coast in its first game of the double-elimination tournament without Coyle (whose 34 RBIs and 10 home runs were both third on the team) and the Fagan sisters. Sami Fagan was UF’s top hitter during the regular season (.378) and Kasey Fagan was hitting .261 with 18 RBIs. The Gators, the No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, rebounded on Saturday by hitting six homers in victories over Central Florida and Florida Gulf Coast, but they had to beat South Florida twice on Sunday to reach the Super Regionals.
UF wasn’t able to get much going against South Florida pitcher Sara Nevins until the bottom of the sixth inning. The Gators loaded the bases with no outs, but Samantha Holle and Jess Damico struck out and Briana Little grounded out to end the inning. They were UF’s sixth, seventh and eighth batters, but Holle and Little likely wouldn’t have been in the lineup had the three players not been suspended.
To be fair, the Gators have struggled all season with their situational hitting. UF hit .270 with the bases loaded and .286 with runners in scoring position.
"I don’t think it’s about three people," Walton said. "I think it’s about where we were at as a team and how we did offensively and what we can do to get that clutch hit. That’s been the M.O. of our team all year long, finding a way to get the clutch hit.
"To be honest with you, that stuff right there was happening all season. Bases loaded we hit our worst this season and I think (the sixth inning) was really the exclamation point to a season of young players putting a lot of pressure on themselves in the situation of bases loaded."
But not having Coyle and the Fagan sisters was definitely a distraction, center fielder Michelle Moultrie said.
"Not saying that it took away from how I played," she said. "It’s a big part of our team, so it was hard for me. I’m really close to those girls, and it’s a hard thing whenever you lose anyone."
Walton knew he was creating a potential distraction, but he believed he had no choice. South Florida coach Ken Eriksen understands because he was faced with a similar situation when he suspended 13 players for the 2008 season’s opening weekend for violating curfew.
"There’s things that are the right things to do, and you set that standard up with your team," Eriksen said. "You have to stick to your guns. You’ve got to make the decisions long term that are going to benefit not only the team but your university. I applaud him for making that decision at this tough time.
"There’s ethics and morals. … Abraham Lincoln had it right. (He said) ‘I abide by what’s right and wrong.’ Can’t blame the guy. He’s a pretty smart guy from what I understand."
Walton just hopes his young team -- every player but Moultrie and the suspended trio will return next season -- learned a lesson from what happened over the weekend: The integrity of the program is invaluable.
"I think it’s a lesson for everybody," Walton said. "It’s a lesson for me as a parent. It’s a lesson for me as a coach. It’s a lesson for our players. It’s a lesson for our staff and our coaches. Again, I think at the end of the day as a coach I try to do the best job that I can do and gathering everything I can do to be a good leader and try to be consistent as possible."