WCWS brings Florida's Walton back
Oklahoma ties are strong for Gator head coach
OKLAHOMA CITY - There is a special place in Tim Walton's heart for the state of Oklahoma.
A Californian by birth, Walton played two seasons of college baseball for Oklahoma. In 1994, he was the winning pitcher for a Sooner baseball squad that hoisted the NCAA championship trophy in Omaha. In 1996, Walton earned his B.A. in history from OU.
After three years of professional baseball in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, Walton turned to the coaching ranks. From 1999-02, he was a member of Patty Gasso's softball staff in Norman. The Sooners won a national title in 2000.
Walton's wife, the former Samantha Rhoten, is a native Oklahoman, suiting up for the Oral Roberts University basketball team just over a decade ago.
On Thursday, Walton will coach Florida's Gators against Tennessee in the second game of the 2013 Women's College World Series. Twice under Walton, Florida has played for the championship, falling in the best-of-three series in 2009 and 2011.
Softball is the focus this week. However, for Walton, like most with Oklahoma ties, it is virtually impossible for thoughts not to circle back to a devastating tornado that ripped through Moore, a southern suburb of Oklahoma City, just over a week ago.
"My wife is from Oklahoma, and we were glued to the TV for two, three days, probably like everyone else across the country," said Walton during Wednesday's press conference. "It's very different when you're familiar with the area and you know the streets and the paths. I was here in '99 (for the Moore tornado) and was here for the bombing (in 1995), as a player, so I understand what those kinds of devastating things can do."
In May of 1999, a tornado took a similar path through the same part of the state, killing 44. The Oklahoma City bombing, a domestic terrorist attack in April of 1995, killed 168 people. Last week, a tornado created more devastation and heartbreak. The hourly updates of an elementary school, along with the images of those digging through piles of debris remain in people's thoughts over a week later.
Twenty-four were killed, including seven children at an elementary school. Countless others had their lives changed forever.
Like two times before, however, the community has fastened its collective chinstrap and gone to work.
"One of the things I've been pretty open about is that I came to (the University of) Oklahoma as a player from California because of the people and how well they treated me and how well they treated the Sooners," said Walton. "I know that's what people do. So many people are willing to help and do a lot of things.
"It's tough. My daughter was very scared thinking something had happened to our family who lives fairly close. With kids losing their lives, it's very humbling and very sad in the same sense. The state of Oklahoma, the city of Oklahoma City, the city of Moore and all the surrounding area will do like they always have done; band together, get outside help and rebound and be better and stronger for it. I'm convinced of that."
Gasso, also a native Californian, became head coach at OU in 1995. Like many in and around Moore, she has been part of the massive early stages of recovery.
"There is so much that has happened and touched us in so many ways," said Gasso on Wednesday. "I think helplessness was a feeling. How do we help? What do we do? Everybody just wanted to jump. The first thing we did was, 'Everybody go home and get your clothes and bring new clothes, OU stuff,' and just try to do whatever we can, volunteering. It never felt like it was enough. Your heart just broke.
"We reached out to the softball community in Moore. It was very healing Thursday that we spent together not just for those kids on that team but for our team as well. It's not ended, and it's OK because now it's rebuilding and soothing hearts, and that's still what we're about. We've learned a valuable lesson about life in the last 10 days, and it has made softball something very easy for us."
Coaches Connie Clark of Texas and Carol Hutchins of Michigan mentioned "healing process" on Wednesday. With the daily grind for those directly affected by the tragedy, perhaps softball, like other sporting events have done in similar situations, can provide a small break … a three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh to win a game or maybe a no-hitter from one of the talented hurlers this week.
"Obviously, it has been a trying time for the folks in Oklahoma, so anything we can do to take their minds off it and hopefully come out and enjoy the great competition," said Clark.
Gasso's Sooners, the top seed, open against Michigan in Thursday's late session - if Mother Nature allows it.
Heavy thunderstorms rolled through downtown Oklahoma City on Wednesday, forcing players, coaches, and fans to keep an eye on local television coverage. Weather could again play a factor.
"You have to pay attention to the weather here, especially after what happened," said one Washington player in the lobby of the team hotel. "It is kind of scary. Maybe it will go away and we can put on a show, help everybody forget about what happened for a little bit."
Helping forget about what happened for a little bit is the goal of most involved this week.
"The events that have gone on in the last week have been very trying on our team as well, but what we are humbled by is the idea that we can bring some kind of joy and some kind of relief or comfort to any of these kids with families that enjoy the College World Series," added Gasso. "I think the commitment from all of us coaches and players is that we are going to leave everything on the field in hopes that those that are in attendance and watching on television are getting lost in what we are doing, and that's what it's about. We have learned a lot of lessons this week, and we are very grateful to have the opportunity to be on this field this week."
Washington and Nebraska open the 2013 WCWS - weather permitting - at noon (EST) on Thursday. Florida and Tennessee are scheduled to meet in the second game of the first session.