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UF softball coach Tim Walton finds winning mix to reach Women’s College World Series

GAINESVILLE — When Mia Williams and Keagan Rothrock pledged their allegiance to Florida softball, they were middle-school stars eager to one day play for a national powerhouse.

Through the Gators’ ups and downs since reaching three of four Women’s College World Series finals from 2014-17 and winning in ’14 and 15, Williams and Rothrock never wavered.

The two teenagers will now make their first trip to the WCWS as key contributors during their first college seasons.

“Mia and Keagan have been committed to be Florida Gators a really long time,” coach Tim Walton said. “For them to be able to have a huge part in our return trip to the College World Series is awesome.”

Following Sunday’s 5-3 win against Baylor in Game 3 of the Gainesville Super Regional, Walton’s 4th-seeded Gators (51-13) will open with No. 5 Oklahoma State (49-10) at 9:30 p.m. Thursday on ESPN2.

Whoever prevails will face the winner between No. 1 Texas (52-8) and No. 8 Stanford (48-15). The two losing teams will meet at 9:30 p.m. Friday in the double-elimination format.

“This is every little girl’s dream playing college ball,” Williams said. “It’s just a super awesome feeling.”

Playing for Florida feels like destiny for Williams, the daughter of former UF and NBA basketball star Jason Williams. At Windermere Prep, Mia Williams developed into one of the nation’s top prospects, and Dad stayed in the background.

“He’s always let me do my thing,” Mia said. “He understands.”

Williams stuck to her plan and joined Rothrock, along with fellow pitching phenom Ava Brown, to form the backbone of the nation’s No. 1 class in 2023.

A native of Whiteland, Ind., Rothrock was the 2022 National Gatorade Softball Player of the Year a season before Brown earned the honor playing in Montgomery, Texas.

The trio, along with freshman third baseman Ariel Kowalewski, started Sunday’s deciding game and were at the center of the postgame celebration, with senior star Skylar Wallace among the veterans dumping the ice cooler onto the first-year players.

“I just sat back in the dugout in the end and watched them embrace each other,” Walton said.

When building his roster, Walton prioritizes the ability to fit in as much as execute a hit-and-run. He values hard work even more than raw skill.

“If you’re a jerk, you won’t make it here very long because we’re going to be bringing in a lot of really good players and it’s going to show,” he said.

The unflappable and hard-working Rothrock epitomizes the ideal personality and approach.

The 19-year-old underwent surgery for Compartment Syndrome on both of her legs in early 2023 to relieve the pain and pressure in her calf muscles. The procedure curtailed Rothrock’s training and ultimately reduced the velocity of her 70+-mph fastball.

Yet she relied on ball placement, guile and enough pop in her pitches to post a 30-7 record. After Baylor rallied from a 4-0 deficit and had two runners on base during the final inning, Rothrock retired the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 batters to end the game and earn a trip to her first WCWS.

“It means a lot,” she said. “It goes to show how hard we work when nobody is really watching. Everybody wants to go to the College World Series.”

The Gators first caught Rothrock’s eye when Walton’s program was the gold standard at a different time in college sports.

“There wasn’t NIL then,” Walton said. “That’s the best part. These kids wanted to be here.”

Walton’s Gators are now positioned to go further than his teams have in some time. Since losing to Oklahoma in the 2017 WCWS final, UF qualified for the eight-team field three of five seasons yet have not come close to another national championship shot.

But the 2024 Gators won their first SEC tournament title since 2019 and 50 games for the first time since 2018.

Among UF’s 11 newcomers are six freshmen, Oklahoma transfer Jocelyn Erickson (the SEC Player of the Year) and Louisville transfer Korbe Otis, who leads the team with a .449 batting average. Wallace, an All-American in 2023 who returned for a fifth season, is not far behind, hitting .421 after going 5 of 8 against Baylor.

Veteran leadoff hitter Kendra Falby leads the team with 84 hits and designated hitter Reagan Walsh with 17 home runs.

To find the winning mix has taken time; too much for Walton to recall all the details.

Of this the 51-year-old is certain:

“We can’t recruit ’em all,” he said. “Not everyone wants to be a Gator. But when you want to be here, this is an outstanding place to accomplish anything you want to accomplish.”

Edgar Thompson can be reached at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com

Women’s College World Series

No. 4 Florida (51-13) vs. No. 5 Oklahoma City (49-10)

When: 9:30 p.m., Thursday

Where: OGE Energy Field, Oklahoma City

TV: ESPN2

At stake: Date with No. 1 Texas-No. 8 Stanford winner 7 p.m. June 1, ESPN

Loser faces Texas-Stanford loser 9:30 p.m., Friday, ESPN2