Softball joins final four at WCWS

OKLAHOMA CITY – More meal money.

Florida coach Tim Walton’s team will get another day’s worth of rations at the Women’s College World Series. Of all the things to be excited about on what was the greatest day in team history, it was food.

“They were more excited about the meal money they were getting,” Walton said after his team won a game for the second time while facing elimination on Saturday to stand among four remaining teams.

The Florida softball team topped UCLA 2-0 on the strength of junior pitcher Stacey Nelson’s second masterful performance of the day.

Nelson held the Bruins’ to five hits and a walk while striking out five batters on 96 pitches. Earlier in the day, she held the Hokies to two hits and one unintentional walk while striking out seven batters on 108 pitches in nine innings.

“Coming into the second game I knew what I had to do, to just go out and pitch,” Nelson said. “I looked up at the scoreboard in the sixth and I was just taken back. I was like, ‘Whoa, it’s the sixth inning.’ And I just couldn’t believe it. It went by really quick and it didn’t feel like sixteen innings.”

Louisville Slugger and the National Fastpitch Coaches Association named three pitchers first-team All-Americans on Wednesday. One of those pitchers was Stacey Nelson. She outdueled the other two head-to-head on Saturday.

Nelson shut out Virginia Tech in the Gators’ 2-0 win against Hokies’ All-American pitcher Angela Tincher, then repeated the performance against UCLA later in the evening against the Bruins’ All-American pitcher Anjelica Selden.

“It’s just a matter of visualizing winning, visualizing yourself getting the clutch at bat,” Nelson said. “In the seventh inning against Virginia Tech, I was a little shook. There’s a leadoff triple in the seventh inning, it’s do-or-die. My catcher came out, talked to me, gave me that confidence again. It’s all about having confidence, visualizing yourself doing it.”

The Bruins (51-9) got a pair of hits in the first and third innings, but both runners were stranded on base each inning. Another Bruin hit was wasted in the sixth inning. Nelson pitched around a walk in the fourth and an error in the fifth.

The Gators (69-4) gave Nelson a one-run lead without recording a hit in the first inning against UCLA.

Florida leadoff hitter Kim Waleszonia walked on four pitches from Selden, then stole second base to tie her own single-season school record of 24. Waleszonia had been hitless in the WCWS in eight at bats despite batting .357 this season. Waleszonia scored on an error by Selden when Ali Gardiner grounded back to the UCLA pitcher.

“I scooped it, it just got caught in my glove,” Selden said.

Selden hurried to get the ball out of her glove and made an errant throw to first base that went down the right field line and allowed Waleszonia to score. Gardiner was thrown out trying to advance to second base.

Nelson pitched in a scoreless game for eight innings against Virginia Tech before Mary Ratliff drove in two runs in the ninth inning. Nelson said she felt like she had to hold the Bruins scoreless until her offense could provide more runs.

“When we got that run, I didn’t feel like it was much of a cushion at all,” Nelson said. “UCLA has such great hitters that can put one over the fence at any time. There were hitters coming up getting hits. (Amanda) Kamekona went 3-for-3 today and I did not want to face her again. That one run was great to put on the board, but we did not have that much insurance.”

UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said that her team failed to capitalize on opportunities while giving Florida chances to score.

“Today wasn’t our day,” Inouye-Perez said. “We had opportunities and we gave them a run. We never got a chance to clutch up and get it done. But we definitely had opportunities. We hit Nelson. We advanced some runners. At the end of the day we just came up short.”

Selden (29-5) struck out nine batters, bringing the Gators’ WCWS strikeout total to 43 in three games. The WCWS record for strikeouts by a team is 69, set by last year’s national champion. Arizona played through the loser’s bracket, as the Gators are doing, to win the 2007 WCWS.

“We were coming into this averaging 3.9 strikeouts a game – super low,” Walton said. “I’m very surprised. To be honest with you, I’ve been pissed off about it the whole weekend. The one thing that has got me excited is the two wins. You can see my face, I’m shaking my head going ‘what the heck are we doing?’ But it’s the College World Series. You have great pitchers who know what they’re doing. We’ve got great hitters who know what they’re doing at least one time in the game, so we’ve been able to be successful.”

“The kids that I coach, I told them before we got in here that I don’t care how many times you strike out, I don’t care how many errors you make, I don’t care how many mistakes you make,” Walton said. “If you win games it does not matter at this level and right now we are able to overcome our strikeouts with some very clutch hits. Obviously, our defense has been phenomenal and Stacey Nelson has been unbelievable. We are very excited and we know that everyone associated with our program is excited. We are this excited because of how good UCLA’s program is and we know that we are taking steps in the right direction.”

With UCLA and Arizona both eliminated on Saturday, it marks the first time since 1986 neither school has advanced to the final round at the WCWS. Inouye-Perez said that the WCWS bracket didn’t favor either of the Pac-10 teams reaching the Championship Round.

“It is tough when Arizona and UCLA match up in the first round for either of us to get to the championship (series),” Inouye-Perez said. “Obviously there is a lot of talent around the country. It is very difficult with the Pac-10 teams on the same side of the bracket to guarantee that one of us will get there.”

Florida added an insurance run in the sixth inning with a two-out rally. Gardiner singled to center field for her third hit of the WCWS. Le-Net Franklin pinch ran for Gardiner and promptly stole second base. Franklin scored on Francesca Enea’s team-leading fourth hit of the WCWS to give the Gators 2-0 advantage heading into the last inning. Enea set a school record with 61 RBI in the season.

“I’d swung and missed on my first pitch (in the sixth-inning at bat) and I had struck out my previous two at bats,” Enea said. “I said to myself, ‘Really Francesca, you’re going to do this again?’ And she just laid one out there for me. I was just aggressive enough to hit it and I felt really good.”

Nelson got a pair of groundouts to third baseman Corrie Brooks and struck out the final batter of the game. Brooks had six assists in each game of the day, including several outstanding defensive plays, to the delight of Walton.

“Corrie Brooks is playing phenomenal and she looks like she has been playing third base all her life,” Walton said. “Scooping up those balls in the seventh inning were not easy plays. She is playing outstanding and we would not be here without her anyway. She is one of the main reasons why we are successful here right now in these last two games.”

Enea said she had a feeling things would go well with Nelson at the helm.

“I always have faith in Stacey every game, but these last two games – especially the one against Virginia Tech – I just had this feeling that we were going to win,” Enea said. “I told coach after the game ‘I didn’t want to say anything earlier, but I knew we were going to win.’”

Florida will face Texas A&M at 1 p.m. EDT. The game will be broadcast on ESPN and ESPNHD. If the Gators win, an elimination game will be played against the Aggies at 7 p.m. EDT for the right to go to the Championship Series against either Alabama or Arizona State.

Asked how she felt about Saturday’s game against Texas A&M, Enea replied “It’s still today.”

Texas A&M (55-7) will likely start pitcher All-American (utility player) Megan Gibson (39-1, 0.96 ERA) against the Gators, while UF will give Nelson (47-4, 0.74 ERA) the ball again.

Enea welcomed the opportunity to face the team that knocked the Gators out of WCWS contention a year ago.

“I’m really excited to play them,” Enea said. “I feel like we owe a little something to them. Last year when I played them, I wasn’t completely healthy. Now I am really excited for myself that I’m ready to go and show up tomorrow and be ready for a good game.”

Jamie Hinshaw, a third-team All-American, leads the Aggies with a .347 batting average while Gibson has a team-best 13 home runs.

The Gators lost two of three games to Texas A&M at College Station in the 2007 Super Regionals. Florida won the second game in which Nelson started against Gibson on May 26, 2007. Nelson allowed six hits and two runs while walking four batters and striking out six. Gibson started the game on, but was pulled after allowing five hits and two runs, one earned run, in 4.1 innings. Gibson walked one batter and had three strikeouts.