OKLAHOMA CITY — There were 12 of 14 SEC teams selected to play in the 2022 NCAA Softball Championship. Expectations were high, as they usually are in a storied conference that brings home national titles on an annual basis throughout numerous sports.
Arkansas (No. 4) and Alabama (No. 6) earned two of the top six national seeds, and both programs appeared to be locks to journey out to Oklahoma City for a shot at the title game before falling. Florida went 43-16 in the regular season and earned the No. 14 seed, but it was the only SEC team left standing following Super Regionals.
The Gators were down to an elimination game against 3-seed Virginia Tech and they pulled away with a commanding 12-0 run-rule victory – the largest margin of victory ever in a Game 3 of a Super Regional. Florida outscored its opponents 47-10 before the trip to OKC and recorded 10 or more runs in five of its six contests.
The accomplishment was special considering the last time the SEC didn’t send a team to OKC was in 2002. And the last time the SEC only had one program advance was when Tennessee lost to Arizona in the championship game in 2007.
Head coach Tim Walton, who won back-to-back NCAA titles in 2014 and 2015 with the Gators, understands what it takes to make it to the Women’s College World Series. He also knows how important it is to have a presence for the Southeastern Conference at the tournament.
“We’re obviously in a very prideful league. It’s a league of great coaches, great facilities, great athletic directors, great programs, great tradition-rich programs,” Walton said at the pre-tournament press conference. “I would be happy to carry the flag for everybody in the SEC. We have a lot of really good teams and players. We have some really good teams in the SEC that aren’t here. They weren’t able to get through, whether it be a regional or super regional, through different moments.
“I’ll be happy to carry the flag. I think our kids — there’s a lot of kids that our kids have played with along the way that have a lot of respect for. Our league is one thing. Our coaches conversations that we have, I don’t know what the other leagues do, but we don’t b**** and complain. We try to figure out what’s good for the entire league and not just good for the Gators or good for one program.”
The conference is doing what’s best for everyone and the proof is in the 20-year streak of at least one SEC team making it to OKC. With Florida’s two aforementioned title wins and Alabama’s victory in 2012, the SEC had a team winning three of the last nine championships.
A lot of this success has to do with leadership and Walton didn’t forget to give credit to Commissioner Greg Sankey for his support along the way.
“Commissioner Sankey sent me a text message, and he is an unbelievable leader,” Walton continued. “And what he has been able to give the coaches, the programs, our student-athletes, just from an experience standpoint, is second to none, and very proud of that.”
Comradery between SEC coaches and the conference has been vital when it comes to offseason scheduling and maximizing the RPI. Walton further discussed these relationships and their overall importance to the growth of the league.
“Our leadership has been really good. Byron Hatch just left as our sports supervisor for the SEC, and he is now with College Football Playoff System. He was a really good collaborator,” Walton said. “He would connect us, whether we were in Colorado in the middle of the summer or California or wherever the championships are.
“He has done a good job of kind of spearheading a little bit of current events and some things that are important, and then what is it going to look like when we add Oklahoma and Texas? What is it going to look like? What do we need to do in our scheduling process when we continue our 24-game schedule? Do we have sides, an east and awest? I think we’ve done some good things.
“I think the biggest thing that I have learned in this chair is that the education process, what you think happens doesn’t always happen. I think they’ve really done a good job as soon as Greg has taken over as the president and the Commissioner of our league, he has really put a lot more information on our plate to help us not only with the student-athletes’ experience, but the championships, the RPI, all the different things the nuances.”
The SEC carries deep rivalries among the schools that leads to traditions and excellent atmospheres for each fan base. But, each program has full support for one another and that unity is what makes the SEC the best conference in college sports.