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By Mike Capshaw
Special to the Citizen
Taylore Fuller was pumped. After hitting a looping single off of the top of the bat that landed just inside the left-field line, Fuller shot both fists down to her side and across her midsection like a muscle man flexing.
She said something to her first-base coach that essentially equaled, “Yeah! That’s right!”
The type of hit that would have infuriated Fuller at Chiefland High a year ago fired her up as a freshman for the Florida Gators’ softball team.
“Finally!” Fuller said of the RBI single. “I’ve been struggling this year and it felt good to finally be producing for my team.”
Although it’s less than an hour’s drive, Fuller is eons away from Chiefland, where the two-time All-American’s home run total was once among the national leaders.
These days, she’s fighting to get her batting average above the meager Mendoza Line, which is .200 is layman’s terms. Following a three-game sweep of Longwood this past weekend, she was batting .185 with 18 runs, 14 RBI, three doubles and a pair of home runs.
To compare, Fuller batted .778 with an astounding 1.944 slugging percentage thanks to 14 homers, nine doubles, six triples and 33 RBI as a senior. She was walked intentionally 65 times over her final two high school seasons as opponents consistently pitched around Fuller whenever first base was open to prevent her from beating them with a towering blast.
Fuller, who also was 24 of 24 on stolen base attempts, was named the 2012 Florida Dairy Farmers Class 1A Player of the Year, among a dugout full of other national and state accolades.
“When you look at Taylore’s offensive statistics throughout her career at Chiefland, they’re gaudy,” said UF coach Tim Walton. “They’re almost like the super player on Nintendo. She’s souped up on power and has a ton of home runs, but realistically, the competition that she’s facing in the SEC and with the scouting reports and other things, it’s tough on her.”
Making the transition from CHS to the SEC has been a learning experience, resulting in several 2 a.m. phone calls to parents Ginger and Randy Fuller. In order to mature as a player the teenager still has those immature moments.
“I have my bad nights where I’m calling my parents (Ginger and Randy Fuller) sobbing like a baby,” Fuller said. “They support me and understand that coach Walton is an amazing coach, but I just have disappointment in myself. I get in my head too much … I strive to perfection and anything less than that is disappointing.
“That’s been an adjustment, too. I’m going to have failures, but I am going to learn from those to get better.”
That mental side, more than anything, is what Walton said Fuller needs to continue improving upon the most. He opened the season with Fuller batting clean-up for the first three games, but then moved her to the No. 5 hole and then the No. 8 hole before benching her for five out of six games. She did make appearances as a pinch runner and a pinch hitter during that span, though.
Fuller went 1-for-4 with a run, but struck out twice and left three runners stranded on base in the season opener. She had four hits in her next 34 at-bats (including stretches where she was 0-for-10 and 0-for-8) as she struggled to find her collegiate stroke.
Walton said there were “a couple of flaws in her swing” that she is correcting, but sitting her out a few games early in the season was more about getting Fuller to relax.
“I think she was pressing and was trying too hard,” Walton said. “She really has learned … to get out of the mentality of just trying to measure her success of a day by the number of hits she has.”
Still, she has contributed significantly defensively, logging 30 starts for the No. 3 Gators, which are 45-5 overall and 14-4 in SEC play. While most of the starts have been at catcher (junior pitcher Hannah Rodgers credited Fuller for “framing pitches and getting strikes for me” after throwing a no-hitter), Fuller also has played outfield and designated hitter. She’s tied for the team lead with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage and has thrown out four runners in 15 stolen base attempts while playing catcher.
As a base runner herself, Fuller has nine stolen bases in 10 attempts. Even though she has helped her team, the perfectionist isn’t overly excited about the results.
“She has a large role on this team,” Walton said. “She’s starting to embrace that a little bit more and is starting to handle the successes and the failures of this game, which she has never had to deal with before when you bat .700 or .800 every single season.”
Even offensively, there have been positives, such as the first time the ball connected with the sweet spot of her bat for a home run or a bases-loaded double off of the wall against then-No. 1 Alabama and 2011 SEC Pitcher of the Year Jackie Traina.
When she homered at Auburn, Fuller said she felt the love of her teammates as she crossed the plate into an orange and blue sea of glee.
“They acted like we had just won the world series,” Fuller said. “They see you in practice and they see you struggle with yourself. They’re not upset with you — you’re upset with yourself more than they are. So, when you succeed, they get so happy for you.
“My teammates like (Kelsey) Horton and Ensley (Gammel) are my main support system, along with my parents. They’ve been amazing and just mean so much to me. I can’t even put it into words.”
Those bright moments offensively have been few and far between. Each time she creeps closer to breaking through the Mendoza Line, she hits another skid.
Such is the humbling life of an SEC freshman, regardless of the sport. They go from being a big fish in a prep pond to a guppy trying to swim against the Gulf tide.
“Any contact I make with the ball I’m happy right now,” Fuller said. “I’m just trying to have good at-bats this year and just learning the freshman experience. It’s been rough. Obviously, the adjusting. A lot of it for me it’s mental from being one of the old people in high school and just learning the game. It’s still softball, but there are a lot of different aspects I need to learn and improve on.
“I’m just a baby here now.”