The distance between Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators will grow with time but circumstances have kept the two linked together since his departure from the program to take over the Oklahoma City Thunder of the NBA.
Not only has Donovan reached out to new Florida basketball coach Michael White on numerous occasions and taken out an advertisement in The Gaiensville Sun to thank Gators fans, he continued his support of the softball program this week in Oklahoma City.
Donovan surprised the Florida softball team Wednesday night at its hotel in his new city, giving the Gators a pep talk as they prepared for the 2015 Women’s College World Series.
“It was inspirational. If he can’t pump you up, I don’t know who can,” freshman first baseman Kayli Kvistad said after Florida’s 7-2 win on Thursday. “It was an honor for him to come in and speak to us in this type of environment. Coming in as a freshman, it made me feel at home.”
— Tim Walton (@_TimWalton) May 28, 2015
Head coach Tim Walton, a longtime friend of Donovan’s, said his presence at the hotel – despite being separated from the Gators program now – spoke to his qualities as a person and UF’s culture.
“That’s the beauty of being at the University of Florida and the culture that Jeremy Foley has created for us as coaches,” Walton said. “Just everybody is a part of what we do in Gator Nation and I’m really happy about what Jeremy affords us the opportunity to be around each other. We have coaches parties. We have coaches get-togethers and round tables, just things to allow us to get to know each other. And Billy is a friend of mine. He’s somebody I really look up to. Really sad to see him go. But I think the Oklahoma City Thunder and the state of Oklahoma is in for a big treat. It’s got one of the best human beings there is in the game of basketball.
“I’m glad we got a W for Coach Donovan, because I think he was, like, 0-2 in pregame pep talk. So we finally got over the hump, too, now as well for him. He spoke in my first postseason as a coach ever at Florida, and I mean he’s intense. It’s beautiful. One of our players – I won’t tell you the quote because I think Lauren [Haeger] will tell you that quote a little bit better about when he’s looking into her eyes. But it was awesome – very, very grateful for him to take his time and do that for us.”
Haeger, the 2015 USA Softball Player of the Year, explained.
“It was a great surprise to have such an awesome coach come in and talk to us. You could tell he’s coaching guys for a really long time because he came in and his volume kept going up and up and up, and he would look at you, like, when he made eye contact with you, he was speaking to your soul. Like, I felt it. It was like, OK … it was really awesome,” she said. “He had great things to say to us. Obviously he’s a championship coach and now he’s a professional coach. So we took his words and it really pumped us up a lot and we’re grateful for that opportunity.”
As Walton mentioned, Wednesday was far from the first time he sought Donovan’s council before a big game. In fact, the two spoke during last year’s WCWS Championship Series with Florida up one game on Alabama and looking to close out series without playing a rubber match.
Walton felt like he should start Haeger, then a junior, over Hannah Rogers, who to that point had dominated the 2014 NCAA Tournament and simply could not be stopped. Though Rogers was still playing well, she was severely overworked and Walton also wanted to give the Crimson Tide a different look so they could not rely on their muscle memory from game one.
Donovan told Walton to go with his gut. Haeger started and gave up two runs on five hits in three innings, but the Gators held a 5-2 lead when she exited … for sophomore left-handed pitcher Delaine Gourley, who picked up the win with two strikeouts and a walk in two shutout innings. A fresh(er) Rogers then entered with a lead and closed out the game to pick up the save.
Do not be surprised if you see more of Donovan around Florida in Oklahoma CIty, especially if the Gators get the extended stay they are hoping for in the event.