Nelson carries stellar arm and a smile

When each new day brings grimmer news and harsher realities on fronts both foreign and domestic, it becomes abundantly clear that fun is in ever shorter supply.

So for at least this one softball season, it may prove refreshing to put aside the fierce glares and dour countenances of aces past to find the nation's premier pitcher grinning with joy even as she makes life miserable for opposing hitters.

There's no shortage of seriousness to sift through in the outside world, but when it comes to the diversion of sports, Florida pitcher Stacey Nelson is proof that just because you work at something doesn't mean you have to make it look like work.

Coach Tim Walton, who took over the softball program in Gainesville before the 2006 season and inherited a freshman class he didn't recruit, wasn't immediately sure whether he had an ace capable of a leading a team to a national championship. But it didn't take him long to determine that the tall freshman pitcher from California was unique for reasons beyond the long ponytail flipped over her shoulder in the circle.

"I think the biggest thing we noticed right away was a very nice kid," Walton said. "I mean, somebody who you would just enjoy having on your team. She's a great person. And initially, as we started practices and things, she was good, and that was really it. … She was a good pitcher; she was a great person. And that was the first impression of Stacey Nelson was, 'Wow, what a great kid.' But not a great pitcher yet."

As Nelson enters her final season, there's no doubt that the latter is no longer true.

Despite dropping a game to Baylor during the opening weekend in Gainesville -- where the Gators lost only once in more than 40 tries last season -- Florida remains one of the clear favorites to win the national championship this season. Like any legitimate contender, there are plenty of reasons it wears that label with panache.

A team that won an NCAA-record 70 games and advanced to the Women's College World Series for the first time last season returned all but one regular starter. It has big bats in the form of Ali Gardiner and Francesca Enea, a dynamic middle infield combination in sophomores Megan Bush and Aja Paculba, and a veteran spark plug in senior center fielder Kim Waleszonia.

But more than any other component, it has Nelson, a pitcher who went 47-5 with a 0.75 ERA and 363 strikeouts as a junior in 2008. In her success on the field, Nelson looks like the next in a lineage of championship-winning senior aces that most recently includes the likes of Keira Goerl, Jennie Ritter, Alicia Hollowell and Katie Burkhart -- she's now very little like the merely "good" pitcher Walton saw her freshman year.

Yet in her approach on the field, she is in a class all her own. It's not that Nelson does cartwheels to take the field each inning, but there is an element of joy in the way she goes about things in the circle and in the dugout while cheering on her teammates that doesn't square with stereotypes. Softball pitchers do carry a tremendous weight on their shoulders (or perhaps more accurately, on their legs, which take the brunt of the pitching motion). Where their baseball brethren pitch once every five days, a softball ace may find her team's championship dreams riding on her ability to pitch twice in one day or three or four times in a weekend. So it's understandable and even excusable that many develop on-field personalities more in line with championship boxers or rock 'n' roll lead singers.

Not so with Nelson. For her coach, Nelson is reminiscent of Jennifer Stewart, who guided Oklahoma to the 2000 national championship while Walton was an assistant in Norman.

[S]he loves her team more than she loves winning. She enjoys watching other people have success, and that is a very, very, very big rarity to find somebody so unselfish that she'd rather her team do better than she does.

--Florida coach Tim Walton on Stacey Nelson

"They both take a tremendous amount of pride in their pitching; they both take a tremendous amount of pride in their defense," Walton said. "But they both enjoyed their time while pitching. Some pitchers get so focused that they win and you ask them, 'Hey, how fun was it?' and they say, 'I didn't have any fun. That wasn't any fun; I had a job to do and I did it.' But you watch Stacey Nelson pitch and she has a lot of fun. She loves the game.

"But to be honest with you, she loves her team more than she loves winning. She enjoys watching other people have success, and that is a very, very, very big rarity to find somebody so unselfish that she'd rather her team do better than she does."

Perhaps that's what you'd expect from someone who said she didn't know a lot about SEC softball when she signed with Florida but instead was sold on the school as much by one of its other athletic teams.

"I always say that I lucked out," Nelson said. "I was a naïve little high schooler that didn't really know much about the school she wanted to go to, other than she wanted to go to a school with a good football team. And I just lucked out because my experience here has been so great."

She didn't merely throw her fate into fortune's hands and go along for the ride, however. Nelson admitted with a wry laugh that early in her college career, she needed to learn how to balance her desire to have fun with the necessity to focus on the task at hand.

"Her freshman to sophomore season, she went out and really trained so much harder than she had ever trained before," Walton said. "And when I say train, she learned how to run and condition herself. … When her goal was to run 10 sprints, she ran 11 sprints, just to be that much better. And her own ability to see that she wasn't as good as she thought she was her freshman year, or she wasn't as good as she needed to be her freshman year, was huge.

"You're talking about a kid who freshman year was throwing 61, 62 miles per hour, max. And now she's throwing 67, 68, 69 every pitch. So you can tell she got herself in great physical shape, and that physical shape helped her mentally prepare herself so much better between her freshman and sophomore seasons. I'd love to take credit for it, but I take a lot more credit to her than I give to everybody else."

Ultimately, that's the paradox of Nelson, the carefree California kid who smiles her way through the sprints and laughs into the late innings. It's why even as she jokes about her fear of "the life," as she calls the world beyond college, it's not surprising to find she has more definitive plans for her future than many college seniors.

"I know exactly what I want to do, actually," Nelson said. "I want to study international humanitarian law, and I'd potentially like to work for the International Criminal Court."

Even Nelson, who said she would like to help prosecute those responsible for enlisting child soldiers in conflicts throughout Africa, will eventually heed the call of an often grim real world. And she'll do it with a work ethic honed in the circle. But until it's time to put that into practice for humanity's greater good, she's going to have some fun in her final months in Gainesville and try to add a trophy to the school's championship hardware.

It's enough to bring a smile to your face.

Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.