Tim Walton says ‘it’s a new everything.’ And that includes the search for a new No. 1 pitcher.
BY AINSLIE LEE
Victim of identity theft, Florida softball is doing some soul searching. Who are they? Who do they want to be? Graduation, the same pesky ceremony that rips Gator greats out of uniform each year, claimed two of the most identifiable female athletes to ever play in the orange and blue. Kelly Barnhill, who owns the UF record for most strikeouts with 1,208, leaves Florida with a sense of emptiness in the pitching circle. Meanwhile, an Amanda Lorenz shaped hole affixes itself in the batting lineup. The Gators likely miss Lorenz’s vocal leadership, as well. Barnhill and Lorenz were undoubtedly the faces of Tim Walton’s program. Now they’re gone. “You always feel the emptiness of having world-class players in your program every time you graduate one,” Walton said. “So to say we won’t feel that loss of the graduation of Amanda or Kelly would be an understatement.” Just as Tim Tebow left Gainesville in 2009, Barnhill and Lorenz’s departure leaves Florida softball searching for that “next man up” — or next woman up, if you will. And because there isn’t an immediate successor for two of Florida softball’s greatest talents, Tim Walton was forced to adapt to his surroundings. “It’s a new team, it’s a new mantra, it’s a new everything, really,” Walton said of Florida’s 2020 roster. Historically driven by hard-nosed defense and pitching excellence, this season is slated to be significantly different. For the first time since their 2008 campaign, the Gators don’t have a returning All-American pitcher on their roster. And less than two weeks before Florida’s opening game, Tim Walton had no answers as to who would be starting in the circle. “I don’t think we have a number one (pitcher), to be honest with you,” Walton said during Florida softball’s media day. “We had Natalie Lugo and Rylee Trlicek probably had the two best falls… we’re just going to go with what’s going, and (you) might see five pitchers in every game this season.” In Florida’s season opener against Illinois State on Friday night, Natalie Lugo was “what’s going” as she pitched a complete game. With a pitch count of 111, Lugo also dealt 11 Ks in the 4-1 victory over the Redbirds. However, in Saturday’s double-header, Florida was forced to illustrate the latter half of Walton’s preseason pitching prediction. After a tight 6-4 victory over Fresno State in game one on Saturday, Florida’s biggest test of the USF-Rawlings Invitational came in the second game. Set to face off against the No. 17-ranked Michigan Wolverines, Walton was forced to deploy four of his pitchers on the staff as the maize and blue had their way with Florida in an 11-2 trouncing. Things began to unravel early on for the Gators as Michigan went on a five-run two-out rally in the top of the first inning with Lugo in the circle. However, it was a pair of uncharacteristic errors in the field that really contributed to the dismal opening inning. Freshman Rylee Trlicek also saw plenty of action in opening weekend. Commended by Walton in the off season, Gator Nation was able to catch a glimpse of the Texan’s promise as she recorded her first no-hitter in the orange and blue. Becoming the first freshman to toss a no-hitter since Barnhill in 2016, Trlicek did so in speedy fashion. Needing just 67 pitches and five innings, the Gators were able to run-rule Georgia State 10-0 on day three of the USF-Rawlings Invitational. And while the pitching against Georgia State stood out, the runs didn’t score themselves. Knowing his defense might be lacking -- at least in comparison to what it has been in recent years -- Walton figured his team would have to compensate from inside the batter’s box. “I think this team has a chance to be a little more exciting,” Walton said during media day on Jan. 27. Referring to the “casual fan,” Walton knows that his typical stingy defense doesn’t make for the most entertaining softball. But rest assured offense-junkies, this year’s lineup brings tons of promise. While the Gators return a number of sluggers, a new face is set to (and already has) turned heads. Coming out of Michigan State byway of the transfer portal, Charla Echols, a sophomore third baseman has just the thing Walton and the Gators are looking for. “She has the red in her eyes that wants to kill you in the game that Amanda Lorenz had,” Walton said of Echols. “The closer we get to games, the more you’ll see Charla Echols smile. You’ll see the whiteness of her teeth out there and she’ll start to smile.” “And,” Walton begins with a brief pause. “She wants to kill you. That’s her mentality.” Echols’ scary mentality was put on display in opening weekend at the new-Gator debut with seven hits on 15 at-bats for an average of .467. The Georgia native scored a teammate on each of her hits and netted a two-bagger and two home runs in Tampa. In day three of the invitational, senior catcher Jordan Roberts appeared as though she was working her way out of a batting slump that got the best of her for the majority of last season. On Sunday, Roberts cranked a total of three home runs with two coming against Georgia State and one coming against USF. As a team, a total of nine balls were smacked over the wall, with the hits coming off of the bats of six different Gators. If the “casual fan,” as Walton refers to them, wanted “exciting,” this year’s Gator softball team just might be able to deliver.
Though Florida softball might be considerably different in comparison to recent years, senior first baseman, Kendyl Lindaman, has the perfect message for players and fans, alike: “(Walton) Tells us all the time, it’ll be a different type of game,” Lindaman said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re out of the game.” Later in the week, after finishing 4-1 at the USF-Rawlings Invitational, Florida softball returned to Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium to host Team USA -- which included a handful of familiar faces for Walton. Returning to Gainesville for the exhibition game on Tuesday night, Michelle Moultrie (2009-12), Aubree Munro (2013-16) and Kelsey Stewart (2013-16) paid Walton an emotional visit at home plate before the start of the game. Team USA, which will head to Tokyo this summer (Walton will too, he revealed), punished the Gators early as they put up four runs in the top of the third. Meanwhile, pitching for the red, white and blue was former-Tennessee Volunteer Monica Abbott. The 34-year-old ace plucked away at Florida's batters one by one in her 13 strikeout outing. Finally, in the bottom of the sixth, with UCLA-grad Rachel Garcia in the circle for Team USA, the Gators got on the board with a two-run shot from Kendyl Lindaman. By the bottom of the seventh, the winning run would walk to the plate in Hannah Adams. In a full count with just one out to give, Adams flew out to right-centerfield to put the game away. Florida's 5-3 loss to Team USA won't contribute to its overall record, but it won't be forgotten anytime soon, either. Especially by Walton.