The scene for the Gators’ softball team this past weekend was all too familiar.
For the second straight year, the #1 national seed in the NCAA Tournament and overwhelming favorite to win it all found themselves matched with a 16th seeded SEC team they hadn’t played in the regular season in the Super Regional. That other SEC team took advantage of some self inflicted wounds to win game one. Even the 3-0 score that Florida found itself on the wrong end of was identical. And afterwards, it was hard to not remember the Gators’ Super Regional loss to Georgia last year, and wonder if this year’s team was headed for the same fate against Alabama.
The answer was a resounding “hell no.”
Thanks to a two run homer by Amanda Lorenz in game two, an RBI single by Aleshia Ocasio in game three and a pair of complete game gems from pitchers Delaney Gourley and Kelly Barnhill, respectively, Florida rebounded to win games two and three and book passage to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series. It’s the eighth time the Gators have reached the WCWS in the program’s short history- all in the last ten years- and now Florida will take its bid for a third national championship in the last four years to the game’s final stage.
The formula for this team has been a bit different than years past. There’s no Lauren Haeger to blast one into orbit whenever it seems like the Gators need it, and there’s been a noticeable drop off in offensive production from the 2014-15 teams. Oh, sure, there’s still plenty of firepower to go around with Lorenz hitting .390 on the year and Kayli Kvistad right behind her at .387, but statistically speaking, the Gators’ lineup doesn’t present the same threat from top to bottom it did two years ago.
Instead, Tim Walton’s team has relied on picking up the clutch hits as opposed to an overwhelming quantity of them, and, with Haeger, Stacey Nelson and Hannah Rogers in mind as I say this, maybe the best pitching staff in school history. The Gators’ team ERA of .69 is light years ahead of the rest of the nation, (Minnesota finished their season a distant second with a 1.19 team ERA) and they do it by committee. Barnhill and Gourley are the main two Walton relies on, and they’re both every bit as dominant as that .69 ERA indicates, but Ocasio would be the #1 pitcher on any other team in the nation and thus makes for a too-good-to-be-true third option- one that Walton called on to start ten games this year. Of which Florida lost one.
While the formula may have changed a little bit, though, the results so far haven’t. The Gators sport an eye popping 55-8 record coming into OKC, ran away with the SEC Title and have not lost to one team twice all season. On paper, it looks likely for those positive results to continue; the Gators’ half of the WCWS bracket is made up of a pair of SEC teams that finished miles behind them in the standings and a UCLA team that Florida hammered in the Bruins’ backyard back in March. A third title in four years would earn the program the title of dynasty, and leave a legacy that won’t be matched anytime soon. And Florida does seem to be the team to beat, meaning it would be a Vegas shocker if they didn’t accomplish it.
But Florida seemed to be the team to beat last year, too. And having been pushed to the brink of elimination three times in this year’s tournament already, the Gators have proven to be far from invincible. On the other hand, the Gators fought off elimination all three times they faced it, which means they’ve also proven to be quite resilient. And on the game’s biggest stage, where the talent level is pretty equally distributed among the last eight teams standing, I’ll take the team that’s proven to be resilient over the unchallenged one.