Florida will be lucky to find another player like Michelle Moultrie. Just not quite as fortunate as the Gators were when one of the most complete offensive talents in softball found them in the first place.
Coach Tim Walton's program has earned the luxury of competing for just about any recruit in the country and bringing an impressive number of them to Gainesville. A streak of four consecutive trips to the Women's College World Series, a run the Gators hope to extend to five by the end of the month, suggests the hype accompanying those select few is not undeserved.
The only piece of the puzzle still missing, as it is for every SEC softball program, is a national championship. And for all his success, Walton grew convinced that his teams needed to be a little less dependent on the three-run home run, a little more athletic and versatile. The Gators needed to look more like the senior he feels is the prototype of a championship offense.
"If you could ask me what I'm looking for, I'm looking for Michelle Moultrie, a left-handed hitter that can hit for power, drop a bunt down, slap a ball into a hole," Walton said of his senior All-American. "If I was recruiting, I would hopefully try to find that kind of player -- maybe find that kind of player at 5-[foot]-11, 5-10, 5-9 but she is the ultimate triple threat."
The thing is, Walton didn't sign one of his biggest prizes after a recruiting battle with other national powers. In fact, he didn't find her at all. The 5-4 outfielder from just up the road found him.
"Growing up, not a whole bunch of people came from Jacksonville and made it out, softball-wise," Moultrie said of her hometown. "Not a lot of college coaches came to that north Florida area. So I didn't really even think I was on that level, but my dad was always encouraging me, telling me I could really do that.
"I really didn't think I was good enough to play Division I softball."
At first, Moultrie's options were Bethune-Cookman University and the University of North Florida, but she wanted something else. Trusting her dad's confidence as much as her own, she sent emails to coaches at a number of major programs, Florida included. Whether out of due diligence for an in-state player or simply to provide Moultrie encouragement, Walton didn't let the email pass.
"He was really the only coach that responded back with something positive," Moultrie recalled.
Walton told Moultrie the Gators had closed their recruiting for her class, but that if she came to an open tryout, she might have a chance to make the team. She, in turn, let him know she was coming to one of Florida's softball camps to give him a better look than a one-day tryout might provide. Walton dispatched assistant coach Jenny Gladding to watch Moultrie play, and Gladding's positive review left the door ajar for her to at least earn a chance to train with the team when she arrived on campus in the fall. Moultrie pushed the door wide open.
"I watched Michelle play for one minute and said this kid, no question, is going to be on our team," Walton said. "But obviously what she's been able to do -- I knew she had the athleticism, I knew she had the God-given abilities I couldn't teach. I just didn't know she had such a photographic memory and the intangibles that she has. She's a great human being. She works hard. But she's able to learn; she can put things into ability if I tell her. If I tell her to do this, she does it. If I tell her to do that, she does it."
Nevertheless, as a freshman, she did not look like the second coming of former Arizona All-American triple threat Caitlin Lowe. Moultrie hit just .261 in her first season, and even that perhaps overstates the production of someone with a .281 on-base percentage and .374 slugging percentage. But in making 41 starts, many in place of injured standout Kim Waleszonia, she began to see for herself that whatever the numbers said, she had the ability to play in the top tier of college softball.
A season later, she led the Gators with a .389 batting average and boosted her on-base percentage to .447. She was just getting started.
Moultrie hit .443 with a .519 on-base percentage and 31 stolen bases last season. She earned a share of World Series most outstanding player honors in a losing cause, becoming just the second player in 17 years to do so, by putting on a power show in Oklahoma City. In seven games, Moultrie tied WCWS records with four home runs and 13 hits.
The player who wasn't sure she was good enough to wear a Gators uniform, and wasn't guaranteed one when she decided to find out, will wear a jersey bearing her country's name this summer. A key part of the United States national team that won gold in last summer's Pan Am Games, she was named earlier this year to the roster for the upcoming world championships in Canada.
"I think she can become a Laura Berg, Jessica Mendoza type in the outfield," said Team USA coach Ken Eriksen, referring to two players who totaled six Olympic appearances between them. "As far as her offense and awareness at the plate, wow, I don't know how much better she can get. But there's no substitute for experience, and the more you play at that level, the better you're going to be. But she's right there with everything, and she's so diverse."
Moultrie hasn't missed a beat as a senior. Labeled "Grandma" at one point by a team on which she's badly outnumbered by underclassmen, she's hitting .403 with a career-best 10 home runs and 21 stolen bases to provide stability amid the youthful ups and downs around her. She's the only player in a major conference with at least 10 home runs and 20 stolen bases.
That Moultrie's path to stardom is the exception to the rule is what makes it compelling. Most players on national contenders, certainly most with the ability to single-handedly sway a championship, come from a select pool of talent identified and followed from an early age. Most emails that Walton and coaches like him open come from players whose skills don't match their passion for a place.
Most, but not all.
"I would probably say if I had 10,000 emails like the one that Michelle sent me, or the one that Ali Gardiner sent me or the one that Kelsey Bruder sent me, it's probably three out of 10,000," Walton said of Moultrie and two former Florida stars.
Sometimes the most irreplaceable players turn out to be the ones you never knew you needed.