OKLAHOMA CITY – The Gators knew their groundbreaking season would come to an end.
They hoped it would be on Tuesday or Wednesday, with them hoisting the NCAA Softball Championship trophy over their heads at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.
Instead, Texas A&M outlasted Florida in a semifinal elimination game on Sunday evening at the Women’s College World Series and ended the Gators’ season for a second consecutive year.
The Aggies (57-8) defeated Florida 1-0 in nine innings to advance to the Championship Series against Arizona State.
The Gators will return to Gainesville early Monday evening, having completed its NCAA-record run of most wins in a season at 70-5. All five losses this season came by one run (four in extra innings). The Gators stand at 18-19 all-time in NCAA Tournament history and now own a 3-2 mark at the WCWS under coach Tim Walton in this initial appearance.
“It’s obviously a huge letdown to lose, but the way we win with class and lose with class and the way we display our actions and emotions on the field make me very proud to be the coach,” Walton said. “It’s tough to lose, but I don’t know of any other team that has gone or ever will go 70-5. It’s unbelievable.”
Florida defeated the Aggies 6-1 earlier in the day to force the decisive semifinal game. Florida was playing through the loser’s bracket after dropping the opening game of the WCWS to La.-Lafayette. The Gators won elimination games against Virginia Tech and UCLA to reach the semifinal round.
“You can measure kids by their ability but can you measure them by their heart,” Walton said. “I think that’s what we’ve been able to do the past few seasons is to get some kids with some talent. You measure (Stacey Nelson’s) heart and I’ll take that over anybody in the country on any given day. That’s all I ever ask of this team; do not give me anything more or less than your best. I’m not asking you to go out there and overdo it, but I’m not asking you to come to the ballpark taking the day off, either.”
The Gators were unable to capitalize on scoring opportunities and were shutout for the third time this season.
“We had a chance to score in the sixth, obviously (with) my two best hitters up (in Francesca Enea and Ali Gardiner),” Walton said. “That one will sting a little bit. The rationale not to bunt Mary Ratliff (in the ninth) is justifiable. I’d rather her and Megan (Bush) swing the bat. It’s kind of a tough decision. How many games has she won for us this year? You can count them – 10. She’s been so clutch. We had the same situation against Stanford in Fullerton and she hits a three-run walk-off home run.”
Nelson (47-5) pitched eight shutout innings before allowing a triple to TAMU freshman Kelsey Spittler that drove in the go-ahead run.
“I threw an inside drop to her and she just did a great job of getting her hands out. When I saw her swing at the ball I thought it would be foul but it stayed fair by just an inch.”
Nelson held the Aggies to six hits and the one run while striking out two batters and allowing three walks.
“This game was intense from the first inning,” Nelson said. “I wasn’t as on point as I was the day before, so the entire game was a battle and it was hard-fought for me as a pitcher with batters as good as they were. The ninth inning was no different than the first.”
With tears streaming down her face after the game, Nelson told a teammate that she wasn’t sad that the team lost, but that she was sad that the season was over.
“Looking back on the season, playing with all the girls was just enough for me to leave here and be happy with what we did,” Nelson said. “This team has a lot of heart and a lot of young girls with the drive to play. We play best when we don’t feel that that the pressure is on us and when we are just swinging away and having fun. We were definitely just having fun and winning the past few days. We didn’t win a national championship, but this is Florida’s first trip to the World Series and we have done a lot of great things this season. This has been a team to remember. Everyone just comes together and plays.”
*** Look for further coverage of the Gators’ 2008 Women’s College World Series appearance on Gator Country this week, including in-depth analysis of the final games and overall performance as well as photo galleries from each game.