OKLAHOMA CITY – It’s hard to root against the Cinderella team.
Unless, of course, you are playing against an unseeded team that knocked off a pair of higher-seeded teams to reach the Women’s College World Series.
Make that three giants slain by the La.-Lafayette softball team.
The Ragin’ Cajuns won the opening game of the 2008 WCWS by defeating the Gators 3-2 in eight innings.
La.-Lafayette got a solo home run from senior Holly Tankersley in the top of the eighth inning to steal a game from the top-ranked and top-seeded Gators.
The home run was only the second surrounded by Florida pitcher Stacey Nelson this season.
“I think I hit my spot,” Nelson said. “She hit it, so I wasn’t able to see the catcher catch it. I’d been throwing a lot of outside to lefties, inside to righties all day. She might have been expecting the pitch, but she did a great job on it and hit it very hard.”
Tankersley said that she expected the pitch, but not what would follow.
“It was the same pitch that I grounded out to second the past two at bats,” Tankersley said. “So I just took my chances, closed my eyes, and swung – if you want to know honestly.”
Nelson was unphased by the mistake pitch, Tankersley’s 22nd home run of the year.
“I didn’t really get down on myself,” Nelson said. “I was just thinking about how I was going to get the next two girls out and how we were going to come up and tie it up.”
Unfortunately for the Gators, the tie never occurred. Florida will now face the daunting task of reeling off four consecutive wins to reach the championship round of the WCWS. UF coach Tim Walton said his team will take the same approach as if it was playing in the winner’s bracket.
“It’s challenging (to play out of the loser’s bracket),” Walton said. “I don’t think it’s any different. We didn’t come here to lose. It’s no different. We still have to go out there and take the next game.”
Florida will face off against Virginia Tech, who fell 1-0 to Texas A&M in the second game of the day, at 12 p.m. ET on Saturday.
“Obviously, we’re going to face one of the three players of the year coming up, Angela Tincher,” Walton said. “It makes for even a tougher challenge, especially coming off of a negative performance offensively with 15 strikeouts when you’ve got a strikeout pitcher (ahead). We’re going to have to regroup, practice tomorrow and figure out what to do.”
Florida dropped to 67-4 on the year and has lost two of its last five contests after a string of 37 straight wins from March 12 – May 17.
The Gators were held to six hits by La.-Lafayette freshman pitcher Ashley Brignac, who threw 187 pitches in the game. Florida freshman designated player Tiffany DeFelice had one of those six hits and contributed to Brignac’s high pitch count with a 23-pitch at bat in the eighth inning before flying out to center field.
“She’s a great pitcher,” DeFelice said. “I’m not going to take anything away from her. She was hitting her spots. She was getting the ball where it needed to be. I was just going to keep fouling them off until I got something I liked and hoping she was going to miss. It was a very long at bat. It was tough. I was hoping for a better result, but that’s the way the ball bounces sometimes.”
DeFelice said the at bat reminded her of a previous experience at the ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.
“Actually, on the same field last year at Gold Nationals I had a 23-pitch at bat,” DeFelice said. “I ended up walking after it off of the Firecrackers’ pitcher. I don’t remember her name. It was the same field, pretty much the same thing.”
The Gators had six batters strike out with runners in scoring position, something that left the Florida coach baffled after the game. “We went in with a fairly good game plan,” Walton said. “We knew exactly the velocity that (Brignac) had and the kind of pitches she had. She didn’t throw anything out there today that we didn’t know she had. I think she threw one offspeed pitch on the whole day.
“The gameplan was to be back in the box and expect the ball in on the righties and away from the lefties. She’s going to throw the ball above your hands every now and again, whether it be early in the count or late in the count. We were working hard to keep our hands high and work not to chase. I think the one thing that you can see – I’m not going to make any excuses, we didn’t do a very good job – but you see a look a couple of times with a couple of our batters that something about her mechanics, something about her release point was definitely deceiving us. I saw about three or four different hitters kinda have an awkward look on their face on a pitch on the way it broke and some of that stuff.
“The plan was there, but the execution just wasn’t. We just didn’t get it done.”
Florida took a 1-0 lead in the second inning on an RBI double from sophomore Corrie Brooks that drove in freshman Aja Paculba.
After already stranding two runners on base in the first inning, the Gators left the bases loaded in the third inning. Ali Gardiner walked, Francesca Enea singled and DeFelice walked, but UF couldn’t expand its lead.
“I don’t know if you can blow it open against La.-Lafayette with their offense,” Walton said. “They’re a pretty good offensive team. Make them change their swings, definitely. One run was great, two runs was great. Three or four would have been a lot better for Stacey and for their offense to have to go up there and try to do things out of their norm. Obviously, Francesca in the first inning had an opportunity with first and second and one out. Then Mary had the same opportunity. Then again we had the bases loaded and struck out. We had our chances, but I’ll take my chances with Francesca or Mary or Ali or any of those kids up there again.
Florida left nine runners on base in the game, aided by five walks from Brignac, but could never seem to get the clutch hit it needed.
“Overall, I was pleased with the way we came into the game,” Walton said. “We were prepared to come into the game. At this level, when you get to this point, especially with dominant pitching all the way through, you’re going to have to do a little bit better of a job making adjustments the second and third time around and we did not do that. Overall, I don’t think we swung the bat well enough to win the game today, but give (La.-Lafayette) a lot of credit. I thought they did an outstanding of pitching and keeping us off-balance. I’m proud of our kids’ effort, but at this level you’ve got to get it done, you have to make adjustments no matter what the situation is. We’ll be better on Saturday.
The Cajuns tied the game on a two-run double from senior Vanessa Soto, a former LSU Tiger, in the fifth inning. Soto was down in a 0-2 count before taking a close pitch for a ball. The next pitch from Nelson was her first bad pitch of the game.
“(Soto) had been battling,” Nelson said. “I’ve faced her when she used to be on LSU. She’s always been a great hitter. I kind of flattened out a little bit and she really took advantage of my flatness.”
Walton said the double from Soto was the product of a team with momentum and a good approach at the plate, something his hitters were unable to match.
“Give La.-Lafayette a lot of credit,” Walton said. “Coming in, they were hot. Vanessa Soto provided a good two-out two-strike double to put them on the board. Then Ashley Brignac did a great job. She was getting strike one, then making us chase a little bit later.
Thursday afternoon’s attendance of 6,240 marked a WCWS Session 1 record. The previous Session 1 high was set last year (5,295).
Nelson (45-4) allowed eight hits, three runs and a walk while striking out six batters on 123 pitches. She was able to pitch out of all but the fifth-inning jam.
“Whenever there’s runners on, you have to kinda bump up your game a little bit, hit your spots a little better,” Nelson said. “That’s just all I tried to do.”
Consistent with her general personality, Nelson was smiling after the loss.
“We just have to come out with a positive attitude the next day,” Nelson said. “This is a double-elimination tournament. We can’t have the attitude that if we lose one we’re going to lose another. Through the season, even though we haven’t lost a lot of games, there have been games where we’ve been behind and we were able to come back. I think our team has a lot of character in that respect.”
Nelson was replaced by freshman pitcher Stephanie Brombacher, who allowed a hit before striking out a batter to end the top of the eighth inning. Walton said he wanted to give the freshman experience on the WCWS stage.
“It’s predetermined,” Walton said. “Stephanie Brombacher is a freshman pitcher for us. This is our first trip to the World Series and I don’t plan on it being our last. Stephanie Brombacher’s a highly-recruited kid and I wanted her to toe the rubber. But when you’ve got a first-team All-American pitcher, it’s very hard to pull them out of the game. That was the opportunity I saw for Stephanie to come into the game and toe the rubber and feel what it’s like to pitch at the College World Series.
“Obviously, Stacey’s going in Game Two and I don’t make any plans on pulling her.”
DeFelice said the Gators are resilient and won’t be deterred by the loss.
“It’s tough, but this team is tough,” DeFelice said. “Our team has a lot of heart. When you have someone like Stacey Nelson on the mound, you are just so confident that something is going to happen. Whether (Nelson) strikes someone out, or Ali Gardiner hits a double in the gap, you never know. Softball has a lot of ups and downs. You win, you lose sometimes. But it’s tough. I know we’ll bounce back from this.”
— Louisiana-La. improved to 6-7 all-time in the WCWS and picked up its first win in World Series play since a 7-0 decision over Princeton in 1996.
— The Ragin’ Cajuns improved to 4-0 all-time versus Florida. They won the first three contests by an average margin of 8-3. The two squads had last met during a two-game series in Lafayette on Feb. 22-23, 2002.
— La.-Lafayette improved to 3-0 versus SEC opponents this season. It defeated LSU in NCAA Regional action on May 17 and 18 by scores of 9-4 and 6-3.
— Today’s extra-inning contest marked the first opening game of the WCWS to go to extra frames since No. 2 Arizona beat seventh-seeded Oregon State 3-2 in nine innings in 2006.
— This afternoon’s game marked the 17th double-digit strikeout performance of the season for La.-Lafayette hurler Ashley Brignac. Her 15 punch-outs marked a career high for the freshman.
— The Ragin’ Cajuns’ nine hits tied for the second-most given up by Florida on the season. The Gators also gave up nine hits to California in the first game of last weekend’s Super Regional and surrendered a season-high 12 hits in an 11-inning contest against Tennessee on May 3.