GAINESVILLE — Over four years, Kelsey Horton has played three positions on highly successful Florida softball teams filled with All-Americans.
Yet this year, Horton says, has been her most rewarding. Why?
Because as one of two seniors on a team filled with underclassmen and no superstars, Horton has earned her first SEC regular-season and tournament titles, started 60 of 61 games on a Gators team that has 55 victories, and is having the best time of her career.
"I think being picked (to finish seventh in the SEC), we didn't have expectations," said Horton, a Durant High graduate hitting .285 with 10 homers and 35 RBIs. "So it allowed us to play loose and easy like we did all season.
"It's incredible as a senior to go out this way. I told my mom this year it doesn't even matter about individual awards. I've got an SEC championship and a tournament championship, which is something I hadn't gotten even on our really good teams here. So it's just awesome. I get to have a ring. I'm so happy."
And she still gets to have her individual awards.
Horton, who has started all but four games in rightfield, earned second-team All-SEC honors. (She was second team in 2012 and 2010 all-freshman.) Most important for Florida, she has provided veteran leadership to a team that starts four freshmen and two sophomores.
"She and (utility player Ensley Gammel) are our captains," freshman outfielder Kirsti Merritt said. "They kind of took control of us young ones and showed us how it works at the beginning."
Horton has one more opportunity to win the women's College World Series. She and the Gators, who went 3-0 in last weekend's double-elimination region tournament, face UAB in a best-of-three Super Region starting Saturday. The winner goes to the Series.
"This is a huge accomplishment," said Florida coach Tim Walton, whose program lost in the World Series final when Horton was a sophomore and was eliminated early in the World Series when she was a freshman.
"This is going to go down as one of the best jobs a team has done with so many question marks going into a season, so many new starters. This is one of the most gratifying feelings that I've had in a long time."
The Valrico native began her Florida career as the designated player and appeared in 31 games. As a sophomore, she appeared in 52 games (41 starts), seeing time at catcher and outfielder. Last season, she started 59 games and took over as the starting catcher when Brittany Schutte broke her jaw.
"I think I just fell into (catching)," Horton said. "It was just kind of play wherever I fit in. I think Coach Walton just kind of stuck me in wherever he could fit me."
It has worked out well for Horton both on and off the field. She has garnered numerous national awards, including 2012 academic All-American and 2013 Tracy Caulkins Award for the top graduating female student-athlete in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
She graduated earlier this month with a degree in nutritional sciences, earned a $5,000 scholarship as the recipient of the SEC's Brad Davis Service Award and will attend pharmacy school at Auburn in the fall. She credits her early struggles to fit in on the team with her success now.
"I think it just made me realize I had to work for everything," Horton said. "I feel like I've had to earn a lot of things I've gotten this far, which is a good feeling. It's too easy when it's just handed to you. It's really rewarding when you work hard for four years and then you get to start every game your senior year. That's just an incredible feeling just to know where I came from. Now that I've come this far, it's just awesome to look back and see that."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.