Florida softball coach Tim Walton returned to Oklahoma City this week with mixed emotions.
Beginning today, Walton will try to lead Florida to its first national championship in its fifth Women's College World Series appearance in the past six seasons.
But as he prepared for the trip this week and the opening game against Tennessee, Walton was acutely aware of the situation in Moore, Okla., where a tornado killed 24 people last week and destroyed a 17-mile stretch of the town's infrastructure.
For him, the tragedy is personal.
Born in Cerritos, Calif., Walton is a 1996 graduate of the University of Oklahoma, where he was a baseball pitcher and two-year letter-winner. He was also a Sooners assistant softball coach from 1999-2002.
"For us, we have family there," Walton said this week. "My mother-in-law and father-in-law live in Edmond. My sister-in-law lives in Oklahoma City. We have a lot of family and friends that are in that area still. That's the first thing you think about. And I have some former players that all still live in that area.
"When you go into those kinds of areas, it's an amazing feeling when you look at all the devastation that something like that can do."
Walton, who wore an Oklahoma sticker on his helmet last weekend, has witnessed his share of tragedy in the state. He lived there in 1999 when another deadly tornado destroyed Moore. One of his former players lost her home then.
"When you look at the devastation that's happened, I was there in 1999, I was there for the Oklahoma bombing (in 1995 at the Murrah Federal Building) as well," Walton said. "So I've been a part of some of the worst history in the state. But I know the state of Oklahoma is such a community and such a very tight-knit state, and everybody's got each other's backs. So if any state can get over that, they'll get over it, and they'll pull together.
"There are some good people in that area, and they'll work hard to get everything back up the way it's supposed to be."
It is that similar sense of family, community and work ethic that Walton has instilled in this Florida team, a group picked to finish seventh in the SEC but won both the SEC regular-season and tournament titles and has surpassed even its own expectations.
It is reflected in the team motto adopted before the season: "Sixteen Strong."
"From the day we got here, we've been through a roller-coaster ride," freshman second baseman Kelsey Stewart said. "But we had each other's back this whole time. It's a family thing. With all the roller coasters, yet we're still here, 16 strong. And we've never been stronger."
Florida (57-5) is ranked No. 2 in the nation, has 21 come-from-behind wins, and is 16-4 against top-25 opponents. The Gators have 15 run-rules and 20 shutouts, 11 behind junior pitcher Hannah Rogers, who with teammate Lauren Haeger was named a first-team All-American on Wednesday. Over the past two weekends of NCAA region and super region play, a different starter was key for the Gators in their victories. And that, Walton said, is what he's most proud of.
"That tells you the story of our team," he said. "It's everybody. Everybody has contributed to our team through the wins and the losses. They've done a good job of believing in each other. Our practices are methodical, sometimes boring, because we do the same thing over and over and over and over again. And in the end, I think we have just been rewarded for the hard work. The tough practices in preseason built mental toughness. I'm really proud of every one of them."
Now, the Gators said, the plan is to stick to what got them this far.
"I think we're going to bring strong defense, strong pitching and strong offense to this World Series," senior Kelsey Horton said.