Next stop Oklahoma City!

The celebration lasted all of about one minute. Everybody on the field and in the dugout sprinted to the middle of the infield where they hugged and jumped up and down for a bit. And then it was over. The Florida Gators had won the Gainesville Super Regional and it was almost as if they were already turning their focus toward next week and the College World Series in Oklahoma City.

In the dugout before the bottom of the ninth inning, Francesca Enea had suggested a dogpile in the middle of the field but instead of the frenzied piling on, the Gators acted like they had been there before.

“I thought we were pretty hysterical,” said Stacey Nelson, who gave up only three hits and struck out nine in another dominating pitching performance to lead the Gators to a 4-2 extra-inning win over the California Golden Bears to take the super regional 2-0. A native of southern California, Nelson is so laid back that her teammates call her “hippie” and “tree-hugger,” so her idea of letting loose probably gravitates toward the subdued anyway.

“That’s about as close to a dogpile as you’ll get with them,” said Coach Tim Walton, whose 67-3 Gators are the first Florida softball team in school history to qualify for the College World Series. “We won a conference championship a couple of weeks ago and all they can do is ask where are we going to dinner.”

For a team that’s never been to the softball equivalent of the Big Dance, the Gators sure act like they’ve been doing this a long time. They play with confidence and they are not the least bit fazed or intimidated by anything or anyone. Cal has made it at least to the NCAA regionals 23 straight years and the Golden Bears have won a national championship and they know what it’s like to make it to three straight national championship games. Yet for all their pride and tradition California was just another team the Gators had to beat to reach their preseason goal of making it to the College World Series.

They expected to win Saturday’s game just like they’ve expected to win every single game they’ve played this year. They expected to be champions and that has everything to do with why they are on this softball team.

“Every kid on this team has won some kind of championship,” said Walton, who has admitted he only recruits players who have played on championship teams because they know how to win. “They’ve won these kind of games before. They know how to win and they want to win.”

Knowing how to win had everything to do with Florida pulling out this extra-inning thriller played before a crowd of 2,082 at jam-packed Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium Saturday afternoon. For five innings, it was all Florida.

The Gators manufactured a run in the third inning when Kim Waleszonia bounced a single up the middle and was sacrificed to third by Aja Paculba. Ali Gardiner walked but was forced at second by Francesca Enea, putting runners on first and third. With Mary Ratliff at the plate, Enea broke for second and stopped halfway when the throw by Katie Vickers wasn’t cut off by the shortstop. Waleszonia sprinted home and Enea ended up on second when Sanoe Kekahuna’s throw found its way to left field.

“We made some costly mistakes such as the throw down to second which we weren’t supposed to do,” said Cal coach Diane Ninemire.

In the Florida fifth, Paculba singled up the middle with one out and moved on to second on Gardiner’s grounder to the right side of the infield. Enea ripped a single to left, driving home Paculba for her 60th RBI of the year to give the Gators what seemed like a comfortable 2-0 lead.

Considering the way Nelson was pitching there was every reason to believe this game was all but over. Heading into the bottom of the sixth, Nelson had given up only one hit and she was dominating. She set down the first six Cal batters in order before giving up a leadoff double to Vermae Sevilla in the third. Sevilla was sacrified to third but Nelson struck out Tayor Kelly and after a walk to Valerie Arioto, pinch-hitter Lauren Bauer grounded out to end the threat. Nelson gave up a walk in the fourth and had a 1-2-3 inning in the fifth.

Cal came back from the dead in the sixth. Leading off the inning, Arioto fought off four pitches once she got her second strike before finally grounding a single up the middle for Cal’s first hit since the third inning. Nelson struck out Erika Racklin and Gina Leomiti but Bernice Masiani’s bouncer to shortstop took a bad hop and bounced off the wrist of Megan Bush to extend the inning. Katie Vickers followed with a sinking line drive that glanced off the glove of the diving Enea in left field and caromed into the corner in foul territory. That brought home Arioto and pinch-runner Shannon Houston to tie the game at 2-2 but Vickers was thrown out at third by Bush, who had hustled after the ball when Enea went down.

Getting that final out at third base turned out to be the defensive play of the game for the Gators. Instead of a runner at third with a chance to take the lead, Cal’s rally was snuffed out by Bush’s perfect peg.  Bush threw a strike to Corrie Brooks who made a swipe tag to nab Vickers, who said she thought she was safe “but it was a close play.”

“I just sprinted after the ball as hard as I could,” said Bush, whose teammates told her to throw to third as soon as she reached the ball. Bush later got a chance to atone for her sixth-inning error in the ninth when she cranked her 13th home run of the season over the fence in right center field.

Walton said the bottom of the sixth was the kind of inning that “sucked all the air out of our dugout” and changed momentum in Cal’s favor. The Gators had potential rallies snuffed in each of the seventh and eighth on line drives that were turned into bang-bang double plays but Cal couldn’t capitalize because Nelson was brilliant the rest of the way.

Nelson, who improved to 45-3, changed the momentum once again to Florida’s favor by setting down the Bears 1-2-3 in the seventh and eighth innings. She struck out two of the three batters she faced in the seventh and got two infield tappers and a high, lazy fly to right field for the three outs in the eighth.

Bush, who had been slumping at the plate the last couple of weeks, led off the ninth for Florida looking for a pitch on the inner half of the plate. Over in the dugout, Enea and Nelson were side-by-side, expecting something big from their freshman teammate.

“I didn’t want to jinx it,” said Nelson, who whispered to Enea that she thought Bush was going to come through in a big way.

Enea did her part by leading a dugout cheer that is saved for special occasions. It must have worked because Bush got a pitch she could drive and launched it into the trees beyond the fence in right center field.

“I was looking for a pitch from the middle [of the plate] in and it was right there,” said Bush, who admitted she knew the ball was heading out of the park the moment she hit it.

One out later, Brooks fought off three potential third strikes before smacking a single in the short-third base gap. Kim Waleszonia followed with a bunt single and Aja Paculba gave the Gators some insurance with a single to center field that drove home pinch-runner Danyell Hines with Florida’s final run.

That left the bottom of the ninth to Nelson, who got a groundout and infield fly before blowing Vickers away on strikes to end the game and that touched off Florida’s celebration — or at least what had to pass for a celebration.

The celebration was short-lived because even though the Gators have reached that preseason goal of making the College World Series, they understand that there are still games to be played.

“There’s still work to do,” said Nelson, originally recruited to Florida by Karen Johns. When Johns was fired after the 2005 season, Walton had to re-recruit her and sell her on the dream of someday going to the College World Series.

For Walton, it has been important to sell the dream of making Florida into a softball power capable of competing for national championships, but he’s done it without compromising.

“We came here to sell a dream a couple of years ago but we were going to do it right and not cut corners,” he said.

When Walton first started selling his dream three years ago, he knew what was expected at Florida and he’s used that to his advantage, selling players on the accomplishments of the entire athletic program.

“We’re at the University of Florida where championships are expected,” said Walton, who fired off the names Urban Meyer, Billy Donovan and Mary Wise. Meyer has won a national championship in football, Donovan has won two NCAA basketball championships and Wise has won an unprecedented 17 straight SEC championships in volleyball. Florida’s athletic program just won another SEC All-Sports championship, led by the women’s program which produced five SEC titles this year. “You come here to win a championship.”

Walton has won a Southeastern Conference, regional and super regional championship this year and now he’s got the Gators heading for the College World Series. That means it’s time to re-think that goal of simply making it to Oklahoma City.

“We’ve gotten to our goal and now we have to readjust our goals,” he said.

Walton and his pitching coach Jennifer Rocha went to the College World Series as spectators several years ago. They loved the atmosphere and everything about the tournament but they vowed never to go back until they were coaching a team that had made it.

So consider this trip to the College World Series both the realization of a goal and a promise kept.

“I’ll be excited when they do the next dogpile,” Walton said with a grin.

Chances are, if the Gators pull off a national championship next week there will be a real dogpile in the middle of the field. Things will indeed get pretty hysterical for the Florida Gators.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.