Billy Donovan gives Florida Gators softball team a WCWS pep talk in Oklahoma City

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.

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McElwain, White, Foley make few waves as Florida Gators reps at 2015 SEC spring meetings

A tumultuous offseason for Florida Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley, one in which he had to hire new head coaches in his two top revenue-producing sports of football and basketball, did not carry over to the Southeastern Conference spring meetings this week where Foley and his new coaches were some of the least news-making people in attendance at the annual event.

Though the meetings will go on for two more days with new Florida president Kent Fuchs set to be in attendance, OnlyGators.com has decided to wrap up the first two days of the proceedings and provide a detailed look at five of the biggest topics actually discussed by the Gators’ representatives in Destin, Florida.

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Readers’ Choice: Defending-champion Florida Gators softball off to smoking-hot 26-0 start

For five days from March 5-9, OnlyGators.com has handed a guest editor role over to you, the loyal reader. This is the second in five Readers’ Choice posts covering topics you want to know more about concerning the Florida Gators athletics program.

Submit your requests via e-mail, Twitter or this comment section.

Updated following the Gators’ victories on Friday.

Florida softball, one year after winning the program’s first national title, has set a new record for hottest start in school history with 26 consecutive wins to open the 2015 campaign.

Though the Gators have outscored opponents 208-27 this season – with 12 shutouts – Florida has not achieved this mark without being put through the wringer. UF is 4-0 against teams ranked in the top three nationally with two wins over Michigan and another against Oregon, none of which occurred at home.

The Gators have four more non-conference games to play as well as an extremely tough SEC schedule, and though a loss is likely to come sooner than later, UF’s dominance to this point should not be overlooked.

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2015 Florida softball primer: Can the Gators repeat after the program’s first championship?

By Mike Brandes – OnlyGators.com Contributor

No. 1 Florida Gators softball is poised to defend its crown following a 2014 campaign that saw the team go 55-12 with that last victory resulting in the program’s first National Championship. The Gators have already come out of the gate strong, sweeping the USF Softball Classic and routing Jacksonville on Wednesday, amassing a 6-0 record while outscoring opponents 62-7

Florida was the preseason favorite to with the Southeastern Conference title, having received 11 of 13 first-place votes from the league’s coaches, after failing to win either the regular season or tournament championship a year ago.

Head coach Tim Walton, who is now 498-114 (.813) six games into his 10th season, is confident in his roster. “We’ve got a good group, as deep a group as we’ve had,” he said. Walton no doubt hopes to roll this confidence into a return trip to Oklahoma City and ultimately a second national title in as many seasons.

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Top 14 for 2014: Florida Gators best moments of the year

For as bad as things went for the Florida Gators at times in 2014 (see the Not Top 14 for 2014), there were more than a fair share of bright spots. From breathtaking moments and game-winning plays to winning championships and setting records, the Gators had plenty to be proud of in 2014. Check out OnlyGators.com‘s Top 14 for 2014.

14 » RARE WOMEN’S BASKETBALL UPSET

Gators women’s basketball has struggled to find relevancy but there was no question Florida had its engines running on Jan. 5 when it pulled off one of the biggest victories in program history, an 83-73 upset win over No. 6 Kentucky. The win broke a six-game losing streak for UF against UK and was head coach Amanda Butler’s first win over a top-10 ranked opponent after going 0-17 previously in such games. Florida had lost 19-straight regular-season games against top 10-ranked opponents, earning its last victory to such a team in Feb. 2006.

13 » TEBOW TIME ALL THE TIME

Former Gators quarterback Tim Tebow had a life-changing 2014 after agreeing to sign a long-term broadcasting deal with ESPN. Tebow was featured on the network’s national title broadcast that season and was later assigned to the SEC Network where he served as one of three analysts for the channel’s Saturday pre-game show, SEC Nation. Tebow has drawn rave reviews throughout 2014 for his passionate opinions and consistent on-air knowledge. He also proved to be unbiased, lambasting the leadership on Florida’s offense when the team struggled during the middle of the season. One Tebow moment – a spot-on impersonation of former Gators head coach Steve Spurrier – was OnlyGators.com’s most-watched Vine with 1.3 million loops as of press time.

Tebow also closed 2014 with a brilliant on-air prediction, which you can check out below.

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Grand slam lifts Florida over Baylor in WCWS

For the fifth time in seven 2014 NCAA Tournament games, No. 5 seed Florida Gators softball run-ruled an opponent. On Thursday afternoon in the opening game of the Women’s College World Series, the Gators accomplished the feat in spectacular fashion with a pinch-hit, walk-off grand slam sealing the victory.

Florida (51-12) jumped on the No. 13 seed Baylor Bears (47-15) early and kept the pressure on throughout the contest, earning an 11-0 win on the back of five shutout innings senior right-handed pitcher Hannah Rogers (5.0 IP, H, 3 BB, 6 K), who has now gone 26 consecutive innings – 21 in NCAA play – without surrendering a single run.

Defensive miscues and errors doomed Baylor early and often on Thursday. BU spotted UF three unearned runs in the first inning with a sacrifice fly by senior third baseman Stephanie Tofft (1/1, RBI, R) and two-RBI double from junior right fielder Bailey Castro (1/2, 2 RBI) giving the Gators a 3-0 lead.

Sophomore center fielder Kirsti Merritt (2/3, HR, RBI, 2 R) led off the third with a solo shot to center, and sophomore second baseman Kelsey Stewart (1/3, RBI, SB) connected on an RBI single in the fourth to push Florida’s advantage up to 5-0.

The Gators decided it would be best to call it a day early in the bottom of the fifth, opening the bottom frame by loading the bases on three-straight hits.

Freshman RF Justine McLean (0/1, RBI) legged out a fielder’s choice for an RBI, and sophomore first baseman Taylor Schwarz (0/2, RBI) earned one of her own after being hit by a pitch on an 0-2 count, leaving Florida one run away from a victory.

Head coach Tim Walton choosing to pinch hit freshman Chelsea Herndon for sophomore catcher Aubree Munro (1/2, R) proved to be an inspired decision as Herndon ended the game by jacking a grand slam to left center.

The Gators have outscored opponents 60-4 in seven NCAA Tournament games, only allowing runs to be scored in one of those contests.

UF advanced to face either No. 1 seed Oregon or No. 8 seed Florida State in a winner’s bracket game on Friday at 7 p.m. live on ESPN. The Gators went 1-0 against the Ducks and 1-1 against the Seminoles during the regular season.

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Florida softball wins six-straight to open season

By Mike Brandes – OnlyGators.com Contributor

No. 3 Florida Gators opened up the 2014 season with a clean sweep of the USF Wilson-DeMarini Tournament in Tampa, FL, winning six games over four days including a thriller over a ranked opponent.

Florida (6-0) outscored its competitors 40-13 over the weekend as junior right-handed pitcher Lauren Haeger, who was named Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Week on Monday, shined by tossing her first-career no-hitter in the event’s penultimate matchup.

Starting off the season with a win for the eighth time in head coach Tim Walton’s nine-year tenure, the Gators topped the South Florida Bulls in their opening game. Senior RHP Hanna Rogers pitched seven innings, allowing three runs while recording six strikeouts. UF literally weathered the storm – a 25 minute rain delay – with its bats coming alive in the fourth inning.

Sophomore first baseman Taylor Schwarz led the way offensively with a bases-clearing three-RBI single in the fourth inning, which was part of a seven-run fourth for Florida. The Gators, which won 10-3, also benefited from some free passes. “We had 11 walks and five hit-by-pitches – that’s 16 free bases,” said Walton. “We had really solid plate discipline.”

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2014 Florida softball primer: Is this the year?

By Mike Brandes – OnlyGators.com Contributor

Spring is here and No. 3/4 Florida Gators softball is set to kick off the 2014 season by playing six games in four days as part of the Wilson-Demarini Tournament in Tampa, FL.

The Gators open as the preseason favorite to with the Southeastern Conference title, according to the league’s coaches, receiving 10 of 13 first-place votes.

Florida hopes to improve successful 2013 season which saw it finish 58-9 on the year and advance as far as the semifinals of bracket play in the 2013 Women’s College World Series. While the Gators once again fell short in Oklahoma City, OK, they return the core of last year’s squad and possess the veteran leadership to make another deep postseason run, one which could result in program’s first-ever national title despite five WCWS appearances in the last six seasons.

KEY DEPARTURES

Outfielder Kelsey Horton: The 2012 Capital One All-American, Horton was a mainstay in the outfield for Florida, starting 65 games while also serving as a team captain. She was a steady offensive presence in the middle of the lineup, finishing the 2013 season batting .262 (slugging .524) with 10 home runs and 37 RBIs. While Horton’s ability to impact the team on the field will be missed, her presence in the locker room and dugout might be the greatest loss for the Gators.

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