Softball wins SEC title

The No. 2 Florida Softball team (59-2, 27-1 SEC) is the 2008 Southeastern Conference Champion. The Gators won the title outright, as they swept the series with Tennessee (46-13, 14-12 SEC), winning the final game 5-3 in Knoxville on Sunday afternoon.

The title is only the second in school history. The Gators also won the conference title in 1998, finishing the regular season with a 23-5 conference record. The 27-1 record by the 2008 squad is the best conference record in school history.

Florida scored five runs on eight hits and one Tennessee error to secure the win. The Gators finished the game with 502 hits on the season, setting a new record for hits in a season. The previous record was 495, set in 1998 and again in 2000. Four of the Gators eight hits were doubles.

Junior Ali Gardiner (Waccabuc, N.Y.) and senior Mary Ratliff (Mt. Sterling, Ky.) lead the team with 2-for-4 performance, with Gardiner leading the way with two RBI. Junior Kim Waleszonia (Fontana, Calif.) and freshman Aja Paculba (Wildomar, Calif.) each scored two runs to lead the team.

Junior hurler Stacey Nelson (Los Alamitos, Calif.) pitched the complete game to improve her record to 38-2 on the season.

The Gators overcame a 2-0 early-inning deficit to take a 3-2 lead in the top of the third. Waleszonia drew a lead off walk and moved to second on a wild pitch. Paculba’s double, the first of four for the Gators on the day, scored Waleszonia. Megan Rhodes came in the game to replace starter Ashton Ward in the circle for Tennessee. Gardiner took the first of her two doubles on the day to center field on a full count to tie the game at 2-2. With two outs, Ratliff’s double to centerfield gave Florida the one-run lead.

The bottom of the fourth brought a tie, a thoughts of a repeat of Saturday night’s 6-5, 11-inning Gator win. With one out, Tennessee’s Erinn Webb hit a double to left center. She moved to third on a wild pitch. She scored on a sacrifice squeeze by Nicole Kajitani to tie the game at 3-3.

The Gators were not going to allow another long game and wanted to be sure to lock up the conference title, so they scored the winning run in the top of the fifth. After a Paculba walk to lead off the inning, Danielle Pieroni replaced Rhodes in the circle. Gardiner doubled to left center to score Paculba for the game-winning run.

Florida added an insurance run in the top of the seventh. Waleszonia led off with a bunt single. Paculba moved her to second with a sacrifice bunt. With one out sophomore Francesca Enea (Woodland Hills, Calif.) knocked a single up the middle and moved Waleszonia to third. Sophomore Megan Bush (Anaheim Hills, Calif.) was intentionally walked to load the bases and make for an easier out, but a Pieroni wild pitch allowed Waleszonia to score for the 5-3 Gator victory.

Three straight batters hit balls to Megan Bush in the bottom of the seventh to seal the win.

After sitting down the first three batters in order in the top of the first, the Lady Vols went up 2-0 in the bottom of the opening inning. With one out, Lillian Hammond reached on an infield base hit. Following the second out, Shannon Doepking hit the first home run off Nelson this season for the 2-0 Tennessee lead.

Rhodes took the loss for Tennessee, throwing two innings and giving up the middle two runs.

Florida will now head to Baton Rouge as the top seed in the SEC Tournament. The Gators will face eighth-seeded Ole Miss at 2:30 p.m. ET. Live video will be available free of charge for all games in the SEC Tournament at www, Florida radio information will be released later in the week.