Lightly recruited out of HS, Florida’s Wil Dalton proving he belongs in the SEC

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Wil Dalton wasn’t eager to discuss his team-leading 9th home run of the season Wednesday night for Florida, not when he also had 3 strikeouts in the game.

That was enough in the moment to distract him from the reality that he ranks among the team leaders in most every offensive category in what has been a thoroughly successful Gators debut thus far. Especially for a player who bounced between two junior colleges as a freshman after going lightly recruited out of high school.

But then again, Dalton has never seen his game through the lens of others — not when the recruiters missed on his talent initially, and not now when observers are quick to focus on his latest long homer in spite of those 3 Ks.

“I’m not too happy, even though I did put one out, I’m not too happy with how the night went,” Dalton said Wednesday night, his frustration genuine. “To go down with 3 Ks, I’m not happy with that at all. That’s got to get fixed, but other than that, from the power standpoint, I know I have it, it’s there and I am going to hit a couple out. But I’m still a guy that’s going to hit for average.

“I’m not some 6-4 giant that’s just here to hit home runs. I’m here to hit for average and I try to stick with that. Lately it just seems every swing I put on a ball it has gone out.”

Yeah, it really does.

Dalton’s 9 homers through 23 games put him one ahead of Jonathan India for the team lead and well ahead of what could have been expected for the sophomore newcomer. Only one Florida hitter reached that total over 71 games last season (JJ Schwarz, with 12).

If he sticks at this pace for 60 games, that would be 23 homers, which would tie for the second-best single-season total in program history. That’s getting ahead of things, of course. The pitching will get tougher the rest of the way in SEC play, and again, Dalton isn’t just here to hit home runs.

He’s also tied for third on the team in batting average (.322), second in slugging percentage (.678) and first in RBIs (22) and steals (6) heading into the No. 2 Gators’ three-game series with No. 4 Arkansas, starting Friday night at McKethan Stadium.

Dalton has proved to be a key addition for Florida, but if anybody is surprised by his production, he certainly is not.

“It’s been fun. It’s been everything that I expected to do,” Dalton said. “I’m very confident in my ability.”

Path to UF

That confidence has served Dalton well throughout his baseball development and has provided the current for his path to this point.

What others maybe couldn’t always see, he never questioned about himself.

“I believed in my ability. I’ve believed in it since I was a 5-7 sophomore weighing 110 pounds. I was tiny in high school, and I always believed in my ability that I can go out and play with everybody,” Dalton said.

He wasn’t exactly a power hitter coming out of Summit High School in Spring Hill, Tenn. He guesses he had 2 homers during his senior season, while his official bio notes he had 3 (while also hitting .500 with 34 stolen bases).

His best in-state college offer from was Division II Lee University. He also received some interest from Western Kentucky and Wake Forest, but he didn’t wait around to see if it would turn into scholarship money, opting for the junior college route and maybe a one-year detour to pro ball.

All of that said, at least some baseball people saw the potential as the Baltimore Orioles took Dalton in the 29th round of the 2016 MLB Draft. Believing in himself as he did, though, he felt he could better his stock with a year of college ball.

“I wasn’t highly recruited. I did get drafted in the 29th round my senior year, but if you had told me the beginning of my senior year in high school that I’d have gotten drafted, I’d have laughed at you,” he said. “I was still trying to play to go to school somewhere, and once I figured out that there hadn’t been many schools calling me, I just decided to settle with the junior college route and start focusing on trying to play pro ball and move on to the next step.”

No. 2 Florida (19-4, 2-1 SEC) vs. No. 4 Arkansas (16-5, 3-0)

Where | McKethan Stadium, Gainesville

Friday | 6:30 p.m., Florida RHP Brady Singer (5-0, 1.97 ERA) vs. Arkansas RHP Blaine Knight (3-0, 1.30)

Saturday | Noon, Florida RHP Jackson Kowar (3-1, 3.16) vs. Arkansas RHP Isaiah Campbell (2-2, 1.73)

Sunday | Noon, Florida RHP Tyler Dyson (4-1, 1.48) vs. TBA

TV | The game Saturday will air on ESPN2 while the the finale Sunday is on SEC Network

He spent the fall semester of his freshman year at San Jacinto College in Texas, but it wasn’t the right fit. He moved on to Columbia State Community College back in Tennessee for the spring, where he hit .392 with 15 homers, 21 doubles, 58 RBIs, 60 runs scored and 16 stolen bases in 2017.

He felt he had proved all he could at that level and wanted to develop himself further, even if joining a Division I program meant committing to two more years of college baseball before he’d be draft eligible again. (Players can be drafted at any point from the JUCO ranks).

“My goal was to go one year and try to play pro ball, and if that didn’t work out then I wanted to go play somewhere big, a stage like this that I could showcase my talent and I could show that I’m here to play with everybody, I’ve always been able to play with everybody,” Dalton said.

He made a believer of Florida assistant coach Craig Bell, who came to see him play prior to Florida’s road series at Vanderbilt last spring.

“It was a double-header. I had probably two of the best games of my whole season,” Dalton recalled.

Gators head coach Kevin O’Sullivan called him that night and followed up the next day to offer him a spot in the program and the fresh challenge he craved.

“We very rarely ever go out of state for an outfielder. It was the middle of the year and we just felt like we were maybe one bat short,” O’Sullivan said. “Craig went and [saw] him play, we looked at some video and we kind of took a chance. You really don’t know what you’re going to get until you get it, but certainly the tools were there. … He’s just a special athlete.”

Settling in at Florida

Like O’Sullivan said, one just never knows how a player is going to translate from the JUCO level to the SEC.

Dalton wasted no time settling into the Gators lineup this spring, rapping out 8 hits, a homer and 9 RBIs over the first five games against the likes of Siena, FAU and Bethune-Cookman.

Dalton struggled in Florida’s three-game series at Miami, but he’s been locked in again since. He went 4 for 11 with 4 RBIs last weekend against South Carolina, including a 2-homer game, before retaking the team lead Wednesday night with a solo shot against Jacksonville.

“I tried not to set myself up for expectations because you can obviously always get let down a little bit, but we certainly knew he was going to be a good player and that’s why we inserted him in the lineup from day one and hit him right there in the middle of the lineup,” O’Sullivan said.

He’s since moved Dalton to the leadoff spot and isn’t inclined to budge him as long as things are going well.

While O’Sullivan didn’t want to set any expectations for the newcomer, he said he’s also not surprised as he saw the upside in Dalton’s combination of bat speed, strength and base-running ability.

And after the fall and preseason, his new teammates haven’t been surprised either.

“I remember the first time I ever saw Wil take BP,” shortstop Deacon Liput said. “Me and [India] started talking, and just the way the ball came off his bat was something that we hadn’t seen in a while. We saw it from [former Gators star Peter Alonso], but you can tell when Pete’s just walking around that he’s going to have that. Wil’s definitely improving and he’s really proved himself.”

Those were Dalton’s two motivations in coming to Gainesville.

While he was down about the strikeouts the other night, Dalton reiterated he came here looking for both a showcase and a challenge.

“That’s kind of been my biggest thing is, yeah, I actually want to struggle. Because if you’re not struggling, you’re not getting better,” he said. “I came to this level because I thought this is where I’m going to grow.”

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