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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Finishing softball seasons in Oklahoma City quickly became something of a tradition for the University of Florida. The Gators made their first visit to the Women's College World Series in 2008 and liked it so much that they came back in each of the next three seasons. In short order, one of the sport's rising powers became expected guests.
But walking off their field after they were eliminated at home in an NCAA tournament regional a year ago, a season of disappointment and disharmony concluding with a thud heard around the softball world, the Gators had every reason to feel like Oklahoma City might as well have been a million miles away rather than a little more than 1,100. Getting back was going to take some work.
From Stephanie Tofft's perspective, Gainesville was still far closer to the sport's unofficial capital than Kalamazoo, Mich., was.
Kalamazoo was where Tofft, then a Northern Illinois sophomore, finished her softball season a little more than 12 months ago, a Mid-American Conference road trip to Western Michigan the end of the line for the Huskies.
|Although she rarely played third base before arriving in Gainesville, Tofft adjusted with ease with her Florida squad.|
Florida returns to the World Series when it faces SEC rival Tennessee on Thursday (ESPN, 2:30 p.m. ET). Someone who spent two seasons playing in places like Kalamazoo and Toledo is a big reason the Gators are back in Oklahoma.
"There's no question we would not be -- and she's one of many -- but we would not be very good without her at third base," Florida coach Tim Walton said of Tofft. "She's really talented."
That was the same assessment Amber Patton had the first time she saw Tofft at a summer tournament in Colorado when Patton was still in high school. A former star at DePaul who once finished second in the nation with a .497 batting average and is now in her fifth season with the Chicago Bandits of National Pro Fastpitch, Patton was then also an assistant at Northern Illinois. The head coach at the time, Lindsay Chouinard, told Patton she wanted her to see one of the recruits who had signed on for the following season.
In her first at-bat, Tofft slapped a double into the gap. She hit away next and drove a ball even deeper into the gap. Patton, who spends her summers with hitters like Tammy Williams, Alisa Goler and Megan Wiggins, was sold. Working with Tofft on a daily basis only confirmed her first impression.
"At that point, she had something that you can't teach, I feel, with the way her hands are so smooth and quick through the ball," Patton said. "She's on the level to where you can't teach it. She's just a natural. I remember telling my family and my friends, 'This girl has better hands than I do.'
"I truly felt like if I would have put her in a Bandits uniform that day, she could have played."
Tofft played to the scouting report. She hit .434 with a .512 on-base percentage and earned all-conference honors as a freshman. Even slowed by a back injury as a sophomore, she hit .379 with a .522 slugging percentage.
But Chouinard left college coaching after the 2012 season, and Tofft said she began to feel like she didn't fit in as well she would have liked in DeKalb. When she made the decision to transfer, a family friend from travel ball told her to make a list of six schools she was interested in and he would help reach out to the programs. He told her to make the most of the second chance at recruiting. Aim high.
Walton got an email from Tofft after the end of her season, but before his team began its ill-fated regional. Once those games ended, and with a roster unexpectedly thinned by three dismissals in addition to the normal attrition of graduation, he turned his attention to the kid from the MAC. In the way of the modern world, he looked up her Facebook and Twitter pages. He asked his sports information director to compile as much information as possible. Looking at her statistics, he was struck by the fact that she hit well against UCF and South Florida, both common opponents, and the latter the team that had just eliminated the Gators.
When he called a friend who coached in the MAC, she told him much the same thing Patton had said about Tofft: She could play. Walton offered her a spot on the roster.
Adjusting to the softball side of things at Florida didn't prove particularly nerve-racking, at least not as bad as when she really was a freshman at Northern Illinois. Even adjusting to third base, a position she played on occasion at Northern Illinois but rarely before that, came easily enough. Beyond the field, going from a good-sized school of about 18,000 undergrads to a huge state school roughly twice as large had its challenges.
Where do you eat? Where do you live? More than that, where are you?
Someone showed her where to go for all her classes on the first day of instruction. The next day she found herself walking in circles trying to retrace her steps from the previous day. The missing building turned out to be next door.
"I think I'm a little directionally challenged as it is," Tofft admitted. "But being around a new campus and not really knowing very many people was a little bit scary because it was so big."
Four freshmen start regularly for Florida. Six are on the roster in all. But in talking about the change in chemistry -- and production -- that allowed the program to so quickly right a listing ship, you have to talk about newcomers. Tofft is a little bit older than her freshman teammates. She took a different route to become a Gator. But with a .333 batting average, .454 on-base percentage, .565 slugging percentage and 51 RBIs, she's indispensable.
"She, as well as everybody else, plays so hard," Walton said. "She's so fun to watch. It's almost like her career has been rejuvenated, too, being able to play in an environment like Florida where you're treated like a professional athlete and it's big-time experience. But she's just like the freshmen; she has brought so much energy and a good attitude to the game every day."
Which brings the Gators back to Oklahoma City for the fifth time in six years but the first time for all but three players on the roster. It is a setting unlike any other in the game. Six years ago, Patton made it here for the first time.
"You get a rush of emotions that's just -- it's shock, it's excitement, it's adrenaline," Patton recalled. "Literally, it's the coolest stage to be on."
There's no doubt in her mind that it's a stage that fits Tofft perfectly.
"She might be feeling a little bit of nerves, like I was, but honestly, she's better than I ever was in college," Patton continued. "I think she's going to show up, and like I said, she rises to the occasion. She goes from the MAC to the SEC and she rises to that level and she excels. That's what I think we'll see."
When you go to a school like Northern Illinois, you're one of the tiny fraction of players who ever picked up a glove who get to play at the Division I level. Yet you also more or less know you aren't going to Oklahoma City in June.
Which doesn't mean you aren't good enough to play there. Just look at third base Thursday afternoon.
"Honestly, I really didn't think I had much of a chance," Tofft said of contacting Florida in the first place. "I figured they'd have all the people they needed. I didn't think about kids leaving from the team or anything like that. My dad was just like, 'You never know; go for it.' ...
"Every once in a while, even now, I'll be like, 'Dad, I can't believe I'm at Florida -- and we're going to the World Series now.' It's still crazy to me."
It's never easy to get to Oklahoma City. All the more so when you start in Kalamazoo.