Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition

Hard work of Walton has Gators ready to go

- By Edgar Thompson Email Edgar Thompson at egthompson@orlandosen­tinel. com or follow him on Twitter at @ osgators.

GAINESVILL­E — Florida softball coach Tim Walton took up jogging last spring, a first since he was an aspiring minor league pitcher in 1997.

Those running shoes are now collecting dust. Walton’s laser focus is where it invariably ends up this time of year, helping the Gators find their stride and stay a step ahead of the competitio­n.

The 50-year-old coach spent Tuesday night recruiting. On Wednesday, Walton was back at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium gearing up for the start of his 18th season in Gainesvill­e.

“The one thing I won’t do is take myself away from the team,” he said. “So I haven’t had as much personal time this year.”

The Gators open a grueling 56-game regular-season schedule against Boston University at 7 p.m. Friday at USF during a three-day tournament. During the next 10 days, Florida is scheduled to play 11 times.

Walton’s hard-driving style sets the tone.

Last season helped him reach 1,000 college softball wins faster than anyone but Arizona legend Mike Candrea.

Along the way, the Gators have made 11 trips to the past 14 Women’s College World Series, winning in 2014 and 2015 and finishing runner-up in 2017.

Before Florida had captured its first WCWS crown, Walton discovered his players’ expectatio­ns matched his own.

“I can just remember Aubree Munro goes, ‘Coach Walton, we came here to win a national championsh­ip,’ ” Walton said of his future record-setting, championsh­ip-winning catcher. “‘If we’re not talking about the College World Series, then why are we talking about goals?’ ”

Now, Walton does not hide from the ultimate prize, even though it is months away.

“The College World Series in the standard,” he said.

The barometer, too.

The 2021 Gators won the SEC title, but lost in the NCAA Super Regional. In 2022, Florida reached the WCWS after failing to defend its title.

“Last year we went to the College World Series and tied for fourth in the SEC. Hey, good season,” he said. “Year before we were SEC champions … bad season. That speaks for itself.”

The 2023 Gators postseason plans likely hinge on an explosive offense, ever-dependable

defense and a pitching rotation by committee.

The trio of Charla Echols at third base, shortstop Skylar Wallace and outfielder Kendra Falby, each preseason All-SEC selections, spearhead an offense more than a dozen hitters deep.

Echols battled a hand injury to open the 2022 season, lost her bat speed and confidence. She never

found her 2021 form.

Two seasons ago, she was a firstteam All-American after leading the Gators in batting average (.375), on-base percentage (.478), home runs (15), RBI (55) and slugging percentage (.763).

“We’re probably 10 miles per hour faster than we were last year to start the season,” Walton said of Echols’ bat speed. “That’ll tell you the expectatio­ns in my mind. She’s really, really good right now.”

Few have been better than Wallace was in 2022. Based on records dating to 2001, she is the only NCAA Division I player to record at least 70 hits, 70 runs, 50 RBI and 50 stolen bases in a season.

“It was spectacula­r,” Walton said Wallace’s season. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“The defense is much, much, much improved,” he said. “She has turned herself into a complete package.”

Falby, a sophomore, aims to build on a freshman campaign featuring 85 hits, third in the nation.

“For us to be a great team those three have to be great,” Walton said. “One of those three probably has to be the SEC Player of the Year for us to be a great team. We have a good team right now.”

Walton said the Gators collective­ly can do pretty much anything with a bat in their hands.

Pitching is more of an unknown. Of the returners, left-hander Rylee Trlicek was the 2022 Gators’ best down the stretch. Veteran right-hander Elizabeth Hightower is a workhorse with 13 complete-game shutouts and 42-16 record during her Florida career.

Freshman Olivia Gigante and Tennessee graduate transfer Samantha Bender also will be in the mix.

The X-factor is sophomore Lexie Delbrey, who had offseason surgery. Delbrey is on a 60-pitch count at practice and threw her first inning Wednesday since the College World Series.

Walton, a former CWS champion pitcher at Oklahoma, plans to ease Delbrey along.

“She’s the key component … a double-digit strikeout kind of a kid,” he said.

The pieces are falling into place and the postseason is three months away. One thing is certain: Walton is ready.

 ?? MCCULLOUGH/AP GARY ?? Florida softball coach Tim Walton is an 1,000-game winner and a five-time SEC Coach of the Year.
MCCULLOUGH/AP GARY Florida softball coach Tim Walton is an 1,000-game winner and a five-time SEC Coach of the Year.

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