GAINESVILLE — Kristina Hilberth was a high school senior preparing to graduate from Palm Harbor University High three years ago when former Florida coach Karen Johns was fired, nullifying an oral walk-on agreement.
But with two brothers attending UF and her heart set on being a Gator, Hilberth boldly contacted incoming coach Tim Walton, determined to convince him to give her a shot. But there was one problem: He could only accommodate 24 players on the roster — and she was No. 25.
"I told her, 'I really don't have any room for you,' '' Walton said. "And she said, 'How do you know that I'm not better than some of the players that are already on your team?' I said, 'Well, I've got some pretty good players.' And she said, 'Just give me a chance. That's all I ask for is a chance.' "
Hilberth got her chance, and has made the most of it. The 21-year-old junior has gone from fifth string to starting catcher for the Gators, who enter NCAA region play today with a 62-2 record, a 32-game winning streak and a No. 1 ranking in the coaches' poll.
"When I first got in touch with (Walton), it didn't look good, and it was like somebody cutting my dreams and taking them away from me," said Hilberth, who was born in California but moved to Dunedin when she was 8. "But I've always been a really hard worker. Growing up, my parents always told me I may not be the most talented person on the team, but if I had the work ethic it would make up for that. And luckily it's gotten me where I am today. So I felt like (walking on) was just another challenge."
After battling her way onto the team, Hilberth took the starting job Feb. 26, 2007, when Francesca Enea suffered a season-ending knee injury. Hilberth later earned team MVP honors. Logically, most expected she would return to her backup role when Enea was healthy, but she won out again.
"She's my roommate and one of my best friends and I would never wish that on anyone. But I guess when you look back, I don't think it was so much last year that I was meant to be here, it was this year," Hilberth said. "It wasn't about who was injured, who was healthy. I straight up had to earn that position."
Her perseverance has earned the admiration of teammates.
"She's a very strong person and she works hard at everything she does," junior Ali Gardiner said. "She started from, like, nothing, and given that little (bit) of a chance, she's turned it into a great career. I think everyone looks at her completely differently than a lot of the other girls on the team. She wasn't given that big of an opportunity and she made it into something huge."
Florida pitcher Stacey Nelson is 40-2 this season, and said she has relied heavily on Hilberth.
"Kristina keeps me sane out there," Nelson said. "Everything that she does for me, framing pitches, just being a great catcher. She comes out to the mound and talks to me when I need help. In the dugout, we're always laughing, talking about what we need to do for the next inning. She's awesome and I really can't say enough about her."
Now in his third season, Walton admits Hilberth surprised him.
"It takes a lot for her to say, 'How do you know I'm not better than some of the kids on your team?' " Walton said. "And I didn't. I took her word for it. And she worked and worked."
As the Gators move forward in search of their lone goal this season — to advance to the College World Series — the players insist they are grounded, and humbled, by the regular season they've had. And reminded daily about what it took to get here. Especially Hilberth.
"What I try to remember, and Coach helps me with this, is where I came from," she said. "I'm very fortunate to be where I am and to have accomplished what I have. I'm really proud to be a part of a team that has achieved so much. And it's great to be winning."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.