But maybe #AnythingSchool would be a more fitting hashtag, because of the Florida Gators’ ability to bring home the ultimate prize regardless of the obstacles.
As you may have heard, Florida’s softball team repeated as the national champions last night with a 4-1 win over Michigan. The Gators finish the season at 60-7, including 16-6 against the final top ten teams. Combined with last season, Florida has now won 115 out of its last 134 games, a winning percentage of 85.8%.
That’s some feat given what happened three years ago.
The Gators reached the WCWS Championship Series in 2009 and 2011, falling to Washington and Arizona State, respectively. Nonetheless, there was promise heading into 2012. Florida would return slugger Brittany Schutte, versatile outfielder Michelle Moultrie, and rising pitching star Hannah Rogers. And indeed, the regular season went swimmingly, as the Gators went 46-11 (plus the SEC Tournament). But beneath all the wins, there was major friction going on underneath the program that eventually caused an earthquake. And then right at the worst possible time, the tsunami hit.
A mere four hours before the Gators were set to begin the 2012 NCAA Tournament in their home Regional, coach Tim Walton announced that he had dismissed three of the team’s starters (Sami and Kasey Fagan and Cheyenne Coyle) for an undisclosed altercation. The exact details of what happened remain unknown; all that’s ever come out since then is that it apparently had something to do with another teammate, Michelle Moultrie, though everybody involved (including Moultrie) shot that down. The important thing to note is that it was an ugly mess.
Predictably, the Gators played dead in the Regional, losing to Florida Gulf Coast and then getting eliminated by USF. But getting bounced from its own Regional was a mere subplot to the fact that the Florida softball program appeared to be a broken one.
All the seniors on this team were freshmen on that 2012 team, most notably Lauren Haeger. She was also the one who appeared to be the most upset about the whole deal, tweeting pretty much like you’d expect a kind hearted but internally hurt 18 year old girl would tweet when her teammates- her family- let her down.
Hannah Rogers was a part of that team, too. A few months before that Coyle/Fagan/Fagan mess, Rogers drew heat for her use of blackface by fellow Gator blog Alligator Army. Personally, I just rolled my eyes at that; no, wearing blackface to a party isn’t exactly the brightest thing to do because of its history in minstrelsy, but I highly doubt she did it with the intent to be racist. It certainly doesn’t merit a full blown article, not to mention publicly calling her out on twitter not once, but twice. Nevertheless, the fact is that Alligator Army picked up on it, and tossed a tidal wave of criticism at the entire team.
These two events, plus the entire team’s collective decision to disproportionately respond to a fan on twitter who called Rogers a “C” word and then to another fan who attacked then Gator baseball player Cody Dent gave the 2012 softball team a horrible rep. That team did not respond to adversity, but to twitter trolls. That team did not act like a team, but a pack. That team was erratic. That team was crumbling. And when Walton made the (correct) decision to boot the three alleged troublemakers, that team was broken. But that’s also when that team began to heal.
Since that 2012 season ending loss to USF, Florida has reached the Women’s College World Series three straight times, and has won the last two national championships. The formula was simple: Walton eliminated the sources of friction, and replaced them with players of star caliber who put the team first. And just look what’s happened.
Rogers grew from a sweet but careless freshman into a well spoken, mature senior leader of a national champion that kids strive to emulate. Haeger buried her painful past memories and made some unforgettable new ones by becoming the first ever NCAA softball player to record 70 pitching wins and 70 home runs. Walton filled the voids with players like Aubree Munro, Taylore Fuller, Taylor Schwarz and Kirsti Merritt. And Walton continues to recruit good kids to join his program to this day, most recently the freshman class of Aleshia Ocasio, Kayli Kvistad and Nicole DeWitt, and the incoming class of Kelly Barnhill, Alex Voss, Brooke Clemens, Lily Mann, Amanda Lorenz, etc.
This team knows how to have fun. The girls wear rally caps- alligator heads, inverted visors, and more- in the dugout when a teammate is at bat. Batters who get hits extend their four fingers and thumbs as far as they can, and bring them together to mimic a baby alligator. Those who hit home runs are greeted at the plate by the entire dugout with a massive Gator Chomp, hugs and slaps on the back. After a win, the entire team gets together, walks up toward the fans, and chants “It’s Great To Be A Florida Gator” while chomping in synchrony. And when they get an off day, they sometimes play laser tag.
There was little, if any of this in 2012. That team fought anybody and everybody who crossed them, including each other. This team just plays the game and wins.
The team that Tim Walton rebuilt from scratch (minus Haeger and Rogers) is a family now. It’s true that winning back to back national championships makes it easier for everyone to get along. But then again, maybe this team just won back to back championships because of the unbelievable chemistry they have.
America loves a good rags to riches story, and in a way, the story of the Gator softball team over the last four years fits into that genre. However, unlike a typical rags to riches story, the Gator softball team was completely responsible for creating the mess that ravaged the program. The horrendous moment that led Walton to boot the trio of starters will forever live as a black mark on the program’s history. But it just goes to show that making mistakes is part of life, and that it’s how you respond in correcting the mistake that defines your legacy.
Had Florida missed the NCAA Tournament entirely the last two years, it would be easy to point to 2012 as the moment that forever destroyed the program. Instead, few even remember what happened, because I’m writing this in the wake of a second consecutive championship. It would have been so easy for the program to crumble, but instead, Walton turned the incident into a positive and made the program better than it ever had been before.
And because of that, we as fans get the ultimate reminder that mistakes are not fatal, but instead an opportunity to learn from them and become better than we ever were before. Don’t believe me? Look at the rings.