It almost felt wrong to look at this season’s Florida Gators softball schedule and not see the Alabama Crimson Tide on it. Softball fans were deprived of one of the most iconic matchups not only in the SEC but in all of college softball.
“I think the one thing with the way the formula of the league schedule is it seems like every year you have someone you’re accustomed to playing every year, not on your schedule,” head coach Time Walton said of not playing Alabama in the regular season. “We’ve played them a bunch in the past few years. We’ve had some very meaningful games.”
While the schedule makers couldn’t make it happen, the softball gods are always there to be sure everything ends up as it should. And so, with Florida as the No. 1 overall seed and Alabama sneaking in as the No. 16 seed, the teams were finally destined to meet in Super Regional play.
The Gators and Crimson Tide have met 66 times in history, with Alabama holding a small edge with a 35-31 record. Most recently, Alabama took a 2-1 series win over Florida in Gainesville last season.
This will be the third straight season the Gators have faced a conference opponent in Super Regional play. Florida defeated Kentucky in Super Regionals en route to a National Championship in 2015 and fell to Georgia in a heartbreaker in 2016.
Florida and Alabama have never met in Supers, but the Gators and Crimson Tide are quite a popular matchup in post-season. While Alabama holds that slight advantage in the all-time record, Florida is undefeated when it really matters. The two teams have met five times in the Women’s College World Series, including the 2014 National Championship series, and the Gators came away victorious all five times.
Under the leadership of Walton and Patrick Murphy, Florida and Alabama are two of the most successful teams in college softball over the last decade. 23 Super Regional appearances (Florida 10, Alabama 13), 18 Women’s College World Series appearances (Florida 7, Alabama 11) and three national titles (Florida 2, Alabama 1) are just a few numbers to give an idea of how good these programs truly are.
With the winning tradition established at both programs over the years, Florida and Alabama have developed less of a rivalry and more of a mutual respect. This weekend will be no different as the teams meet for a shot at a trip to Oklahoma City.
“I don’t feel like it’s a hated rivalry,” said Walton. “I think it’s two teams that have two different styles of play, play for two different head coaches, play for two different universities, but have a lot of pride, a lot of tradition. We care a lot about the history of our programs and we respect each other. I think when respect starts at the top, it starts to trickle its way down.”
Those who tune in this weekend should be prepared for a couple of fierce pitching duals as two of the top pitching staffs in the country go head to head. Alabama is one of the few teams with a pitching staff that is even in the same ballpark with Florida after the unreal season the Gators have posted in the circle so far.
Alabama’s Alexis Osorio and Florida’s Kelly Barnhill are among the nation’s top strikeout pitchers, both with unbelievable numbers this season. Osorio is just ahead in total strikeouts with 318 to Barnhill’s 310, but Barnhill leads the country with an outstanding 13.4 strikeouts per seven innings.
Florida and Alabama run out a very similar pitching rotation. Osorio and Sydney Littlejohn split most of the innings in the circle for the Tide, while third-string pitcher Madi Moore pitches a few innings in between. This is nearly identical to Florida’s rotation between Barnhill, Delanie Gourley, and Aleshia Ocasio.
Osorio has a 1.22 ERA this season while allowing a .116 batting average and posting a 22-7 record. Littlejohn comes in with a 17-8 record, a 1.28 ERA and a .197 batting average allowed.
The Gators lead the country with a 0.71 ERA as a staff, the only team with an overall ERA below 1.0. Barnhill and Gourley lead the way for Florida, of course.
Along with her outstanding strikeout numbers, Barnhill also leads the country with a 0.35 ERA. She has a 23-2 record while allowing a .120 batting average. Gourley is fourth in the country with a 0.71 ERA, a 20-4 record and a .141 batting average allowed.
“I think when you look at the quality pitching staffs that both teams have, it just goes to reinforce, emphasize the same thing you talk about in post-season play,” Walton said. “One hit can be the big difference, one mistake, one pitch. I think there is a small margin for error … It’s a great matchup. Two great teams, two great pitching staffs, very seasoned coaching staffs. It should be a fun thing to watch.”