NOTE: The timing of this post is unfortunate given the events surrounding the death of Osama Bin Laden, however, around here, we write about Gator sports… so we’re gonna “stay in our lane” on this one. But when you get a chance, hug a soldier.
I am sticking my neck out on this one.
I have spent countless hours debating the merits of Womens sports with friends. Many of them, writers for this very website. Not the deep, philosophical debates on Title IX and why school “X” can’t have a Mens crew team, but about the entertainment value of watching.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that Florida athletics won it’s 200th SEC championship this Spring. Obviously, those haven’t all been Men’s Basketball, Football and Baseball. As much as we love Billy D., the ‘ole Ball Coach, and Urban Meyer, and they’ve certainly helped bring UF sports into the spotlight, they didn’t win all 200 on their own.
I’m not sure how much your average UF student or alumnus realizes how lucky we all are to be in the midst of the “Golden age” of Gator athletics. Since 2005 (an arbitrary date to start counting…), we’ve won 2 BCS championships, and 2 NCAA Mens basketball titles, but we’ve also had baseball go to 2 College World Series, Softball has been to 3 in a row. Swimming and Diving just won a National title and Mens track and field has just won their 2nd straight NCAA title. Volleyball and Soccer win the SEC every year, and Womens lacrosse in it’s 2nd year of existence is currently ranked #3 in the country. All across the board… we’ve got game.
In the friendly debates about our non-revenue generating sports, and specifically the womens sports, the argument seems to be that the Mens version of said sport is better (i.e.- Basketball, Lacrosse, Baseball/Softball). I don’t necessarily argue that point, however, my point has always been that it’s not a binary equation and just because the entertainment value of one version is better, doesn’t mean that the other has no value.
In a discussion with one of BourbonMeyer’s writers many years ago, I asked, “why don’t you watch womens hoops ever? Do you really need dunking that badly? I mean, they play just like we do really.” His response was, “That’s true. I also wouldn’t watch us play… unless I had next.” Touche.
My focus today though is a Florida team that has a packed house for most of their games, so I’m not making a case that “nobody comes out and we need your support”… far from it. My goal is to get the word out there that if you don’t know about the University of Florida’s softball program, you should.
Not to sound like a bleacher report article, but… Here are the Top 5 reasons you should be paying attention to Florida softball:
5.) They’re good looking.
Here’s where I’m sticking my neck out again. As much as I hate to perpetuate or support this line of thinking, it comes up in every discussion about womens sports. I’m not getting into gender roles and sexuality in sports, as that is a 4 credit course and not for this particular website, but knowing our readership and from things people have said, this is the “no-win” situation womens’ sports has been placed in. You have to be a good player AND attractive to keep mainstream attention. I don’t want this to become too serious here, but whatever stereotype you have about “softball players”… Florida teams squash them. If Stacey Nelson and Francesca Enea weren’t enough to hold your attention… I dunno what to tell you.
4.) Not your West Coast game
I was turned off to softball for quite some time because it reminded me too much of the mid-90’s St. Louis Cardinals teams. A slap single, a stolen base, a bunt, and a sac fly RBI. Three times a game and the team wins 3-1… or god forbid, 1-0. It didn’t look or feel like the baseball games I grew up watching and enjoying. Florida has changed the way the game is played across the country. I’m sure Coach Walton and his players would never take credit for that, but this team is on the verge of hitting its 100th home run of the season (that’s a lot). They don’t do a whole lot of slapping and bunting. They are an “American League-3 run home run hitting” style team. Now numerous teams have changed their style and focus to more of a power hitting team. Much like a high scoring basketball team, it gets harder to win it all with that style, but they were pretty close two years ago. They are fun to watch swing for the fences and prove that “chicks dig the long ball”
3.) “Work fast, change speeds, throw strikes”
That’s the motto of the old Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Miller (yes, when they were good and when Barry’s head was little). The NCAA softball game is a 7-inning game with blowout rules after 5, what more could you want? The biggest knock on baseball is that it takes too long and is slow moving. While the small breaks in-between pitches are part of the beauty of the game (in my opinion), this game moves much faster than baseball and pitching changes are few and far between. In late innings, there’s no lefty on lefty, then back to a righty stuff. It’s the way we grew up playing to some degree. Besides, how cool is it that you can hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 5th to win 8-0?
2.) Signature moments
While it’s not how I typically define importance, ESPN LOVES the Gators. The televised games this year have been classics with Kelsey Bruder’s 3-run walkoff home run vs. Bama and All-American Kelsi Dunne and the next day the Gators battled back from a 2-0 deficit in the bottom of the first extra inning to win 3-2 on another Kelsey Bruder hit. That coupled with the all the reasons I’ve already mentioned make the Gators a darling for television.
But nothing trumps what is probably the signature moment in NCAA softball history, and that’s Ali Gardner’s walk-off Grand Slam off Kelsi Dunne (poor kid!) in the 2008 WCWS. The home run gave Florida a 6-5 win over Bama and a trip to the CWS Championship Series.
Ali, who hit .407 the season before, was hitless the World Series up to that point.
1.) The program
Florida’s softball program is NOT one of the “blue blood” programs in the NCAA (Arizona, UCLA, and just about any other PAC-10/12 program is though…). The SEC hasn’t won a World Series yet, and Florida and Bama give the conference it’s best chance. The Gators have been to 3 consecutive WCWS, so they are clearly, not a flash in the pan. Similar to football, the Top 15 rankings are cluttered with SEC teams and these women have held their own. This is a program, in the truest sense of the word and will continue to flourish as Walton has another Top 5 recruiting class on their way in next year.
Gator Softball is worth watching. This week they take on Florida State on Wednesday night and play their last home series of the season against Tennessee. There we will say goodbye to seniors: Tiffany DeFelice (C), Stephanie Brombacher (P), All-SEC Aja Paculba (2B), All-American Kelsey Bruder (OF), and SEC all time home run leader, Megan Bush (1B).
If you can’t find it in your heart to like softball this week, at least you wont have to go far to find your hate of FSU and Tennessee… go there, then turn on the game. Go Gators!
Editor’s note: Later this week, we will be posting an interview BourbonMeyer did with Gator Great Francesca Enea.