GAINESVILLE — During Tim Walton's interview for the position of Florida softball coach, athletic director Jeremy Foley said he wanted a coach who could take the program to the Women's College World Series.
Walton, a former baseball player at Oklahoma, confidently told Foley, "I know a great restaurant in Oklahoma City."
They will be dining there this week.
Three years after he was hired from Wichita State to rejuvenate a stagnant Florida program, Walton is taking the Gators to their first Women's College World Series.
No. 1 Florida (67-3) plays Louisiana-Lafayette (51-13) at 1 p.m. today.
"My freshman year, we weren't able to even get past the regional," said junior pitcher Stacey Nelson, who is 45-3 with a 0.73 ERA and has given up one home run. "And in three years, this program has done a lot. Looking back and seeing the road and what it takes to get here, it just feels good."
When the season began, Florida's goal was to win more than 50 games and make it to the WCWS. Now everything changes. "Win Game 1, then we'll talk about the next goal," Walton said. "That's it. Right now it's just one game at a time. But it's not that old cliche; these kids really believe it."
They have believed everything he has preached since he arrived and had to re-recruit players who expected to play for former coach Karen Johns. Walton "sold them on a dream," and they bought it much sooner than he had anticipated.
"My goal was four years," he said. "I thought by the 2009 season, we would probably be at the top of the SEC, maybe even some stuff nationally. I knew with the personnel we already had, and some of the pieces we had, we had a decent chance to be pretty good. … To get everybody to buy into it doesn't usually happen very quickly. I give a lot of credit to what those kids have done."
The Florida roster consists of eight players from California and just one senior. Florida enters the tournament one victory away from the NCAA record for wins in a single season.
Although it's a new experience, the players insist no one should expect them to arrive at the WCWS just happy to be there.
"We have a lot of people that have played in a lot of championship-type environments before, so hopefully that experience will pay off," senior Mary Ratliff said. "We're not really looking at it as the World Series; we're looking at it as one game at a time. It'll be a cool environment … but it's still the same game."
Sophomore leftfielder Francesca Enea's older sister played in three Women's College World Series at Oklahoma. Enea has gotten some advice but said she doesn't believe the Gators will be awed by the experience.
"I really don't see us at all looking like a deer in the headlights," she said. "I feel like we're going to go after it, play our game, not freak out and get it done. We have a lot to prove, and we're ready to do that. We're not only representing Florida, we're representing the SEC, and it's a big deal to try to do something that other teams haven't been able to do."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.