Sorry for the lengthy time gap between the first installment of this segment and the second. I’ve been getting some other content ready in the interim. But anyway, it’s time to continue our countdown of the greatest games of the past decade with #9: the “War Damn Walkoff”.
#9 (Softball): (1) Florida 3, (4) Auburn 2 (9 innings)
Date: May 31, 2015
Location: Oklahoma City, OK (Women’s College World Series- semifinals)
The backstory: Florida had just won its first ever national championship in 2014, and were looking to repeat in 2015. On the flip side, Auburn’s softball program had experienced little success in its eighteen year history, and was looking to make it out of the Regional round for the first time ever. The teams would meet for the first time in 2015 having already made a little history, but looking for more.
The setup: In its quest to repeat as national champions, Florida faced a rather SEC-centric road back to the top. The Gators had swept Kentucky in the Super Regionals to return to the WCWS, and blown past Tennessee and LSU to reach the national semifinals. Auburn, meanwhile, had bounced back from a WCWS opening loss to win back to back games and reach the semifinals, needing to beat Florida twice in a row to advance.
The game: If you like strong fundamental defense, this was your type of game. Auburn mounted a threat in the first inning, but Florida shortstop Katie Medina snuffed it out with a leaping grab to rob Haley Fagan of an RBI single. That was merely the first hint of what fans were in for the rest of the way.
Florida’s Lauren Haeger found herself in more trouble in the second, loading the bases with one out. Auburn’s Emily Cerosone lined one right to center fielder Kirstie Merritt as the runner on third, Morgan Estell, prepared to tag up. Merritt caught the ball, immediately transitioned from making the catch to drawing back her arm to throw, and gunned down Estell at home with a laser that got to catcher Aubree Munro before Estell could even begin her slide. End of threat.
Then came the offense. The Gators got on the board first in the third inning when they loaded the bases with two outs and a low pitch went between Auburn catcher Carlee Wallace’s legs. Florida’s Justine McLean took off from third when she saw the ball bounce away and just managed to beat the tag that Wallace attempted to apply. That made it 1-0 after three. Auburn bounced back in the top of the fourth on a two RBI single from Branndi Melero to make it 2-1 Tigers, but then Florida’s Taylore Fuller got one of those runs back with a lightning bolt over the left field wall to tie the score at two after four.
Both pitchers kept their opponents off the scoreboard for the rest of the regularly scheduled seven inning game, so the game went into extras. Florida built the first real opportunity to break the tie and win the game in the eighth inning with the bases loaded and one out with Kayli Kvistad at the plate. But Kvistad lined out to center, and pinch runner Francesca Martinez was flagged down trying to tag up for a double play to send the game into the ninth.
Haeger again shut Auburn down in the ninth, so the Gators came back up in the ninth with another shot to walk it off. Munro walked to start the inning off, and Justine McLean effectively replaced her at first- at the cost of an out- with a fielder’s choice. McLean then advanced to second on a wild pitch, but when Kelsey Stewart popped up, it came down to freshman Nicole DeWitt to end the game and send Florida back to the WCWS Championship Series.
DeWitt took a ball on the first pitch, and then with a 1-0 count, the lefty slapped one the other way into short left field. McLean took off from second, and Florida coach Tim Walton waved her around third and sent her home. The instant McLean’s foot touched third base, Walton jubilantly leaped skyward with both fists raised above his head, having waved many a baserunner in around third and knowing what was about to happen. McLean beat the throw by a solid half second, slid into home as the game winning run and was promptly swarmed by her teammates in a rather mobile celebration that spilled back into the infield.
The aftermath: The “War Damn Walkoff” propelled Florida to a spot in the history books. The Gators would go on to take down Michigan, two games to one, in the Women’s College World Series Championship Series to claim back to back national titles. To borrow a phrase from Jim Nantz: an unforgettable.
The game’s legacy: In truth, it’s difficult to believe that Florida wouldn’t have advanced to the WCWS Finals had DeWitt not delivered the War Damn Walkoff in the bottom of the ninth. Florida and Auburn were trading threats most of the afternoon, and between Florida’s dominant pitching staff of Lauren Haeger, Delaney Gourley and Aleshia Ocasio, one of the best overall hitters in school history in Kelsey Stewart and the school’s all time home run leader in Haeger, it would have been safe to bet on Florida being the team to break through in extras first. And even if Auburn had beaten Florida in extra innings, they still would have had to beat the Gators again the very next day; to oddsmakers, the chances of beating a team that was 56-6 at that point twice in a row would have to be considered extremely slim.
But any time a baseball or softball team reaches the national championship series on a walk-off, that final play- and that game- receive an automatic bid to the first class of the program’s lore. DeWitt, an 18 year old, had just punched her highly esteemed program through to its second national championship series in as many years to dismiss any notion that the moment was too big for her after she’d gone 0-3 in her first three at bats. And the game was made all the more memorable by the fact that it turned out to be the Gators’ penultimate test en route to back to back national championships.
Now, Florida is universally regarded as one of college softball’s blue blood programs even though it’s only been around since 1997. It didn’t take too long before the Gators became a regular visitor to the WCWS in Oklahoma City, but to truly be labeled as one of the premiere programs in the sport, they had to claim a national title. Which they did in 2014, but thanks to DeWitt’s War Damn Walkoff and the back-to-back-national-championship-clinching win over Michigan, the Gators proved that their first one wasn’t a mistake. This was where they belonged, what they deserved, and would forever be remembered for.