OKLAHOMA CITY – The top-ranked Florida Gators have reached the final destination on their tour of unfinished business.
Coach Tim Walton’s Gators (60-3) are making a return trip to the Women’s College World Series at the ASA Hall of Fame Stadium after losing to Texas A&M 1-0 in nine innings last season, allowing the Aggies to play in the best-of-three series against eventual champion Arizona State.
While the Gators are starting to become familiar with the big stage, they are hoping to join an elite group of teams that have won the softball national championship. It is a group so elite that by winning, Florida would become only the second team east of the Mississippi River to win the national championship, joining Michigan, which won in 2005.
One of the forebears of that group happens to be the Gators’ first opponent, ninth-seeded Arizona (46-15), who has won eight national championships, second only to UCLA’s 10. The teams will play at 9 p.m. Thursday on ESPN, the last of four games on Opening Day.
Two games from Bracket One begin the day at 1 p.m. ET. First, Georgia (44-10) plays Washington (46-11) followed by a 3 p.m. matchup between Arizona State (46-17) and Missouri (50-10). The Bracket Two competition begins at 7 p.m. with Michigan (46-10) taking on Alabama (52-9). The winner of that game plays the Florida-Arizona winner Friday at 2 p.m.
Arizona comes into the game with a dynamic offense, leading the nation in home runs (134), runs per game (8.18), batting average (.344) and slugging percentage (.642). Junior catcher Stacie Chambers, who leads the nation in home runs (31) and RBI (96), paces the Arizona offense. Senior third baseman Jenae Leles helps Chambers carry the load with 23 home runs and 64 RBI.
“We’ve got a big hurdle,” Walton said. “Arizona knows how to win at the College World Series. I’d like to say that we’ve started that same type of tradition that they’ve built in that we know how to win too. It’s going to be a great ballgame Thursday.”
The Gators took the first step in that direction by sealing their return trip to Oklahoma. Last year, the players were unsure how to celebrate reaching the program’s first Women’s College World Series and were even more uncertain how to handle the big stage, digging themselves a hole by losing their first game to Louisiana-Lafayette, 3-2, in eight innings before clawing back to win their next three games.
But after capping off their Super Regional sweep of California (2-0, 2-1) with their patented dogpile celebration, it’s easy to see that the Gators’ uncertainty is a thing of the past.
“It’s better this year than it was last year,” said sophomore second baseman Aja Paculba (.384, 9 HR, 34 RBI), who leads the team in stolen bases with 27. “I think we’re a little bit more experienced and we kind of know what the whole deal is about now. I think we know what we need to do to be successful.”
With Florida returning its entire starting lineup with the exception of Mary Ratliff, all the pressure was on the team to return to Oklahoma for an encore performance. The expectations haven’t made the journey easy, but that doesn’t mean this taste of the Women’s College World Series wasn’t just as sweet.
“When we came in the fall, we knew we were going to have a really good team and we knew that every team we played was going to try to beat us because we were ranked No. 1 a lot of the season,” said senior catcher Kristina Hilberth, who is second on the team with a .389 batting average. “So it’s really great to go back to the World Series after everyone was gunning for us from game one.”
Teams don’t always live up to lofty expectations. Sometimes they are crushed by them, but this team has proven to thrive on them. That success boils down to not taking those expectations for granted and continuing to put in the everyday work necessary to be the best.
“We would have been disappointed if we didn’t make it,” Hilberth admitted. “But at the same time, there’s a lot of great ballclubs we’ve had to beat to get to this point, so I don’t think we ever really expected it. But we’ve worked really hard and we have a lot of talent, so it would have been a disappointment if we didn’t get to this point.”
The journey has also come with some prestigious honors along the way.
Senior ace Stacey Nelson (39-3, 0.41 ERA) capped off her stellar four-year career by receiving the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award and the Academic All-American of the Year. Hilberth (first team), senior first baseman Ali Gardiner (third team) and sophomore pitcher Stephanie Brombacher (third team) were also named ESPN the Magazine Academic All-Americans.
Nelson did lose the Player of the Year award to Washington ace Danielle Lawrie, who outdueled Nelson in a 1-0 nine-inning game earlier in the season, but that may be a good sign for the Gators. The winner of the award has never won the national championship since the award’s inception in 2002.
Either way it couldn’t matter less to Nelson, who says she never keeps track of her personal accomplishments. The ultimate team-first player, Nelson is more excited for what her team has achieved and what is left in store for the Gators.
“It’s tough to get to this point,” Nelson said. “We know it’s tough. We knew this road wasn’t going to be easy, so to finally be in the College World Series is such a great feeling of accomplishment. But at the same time it’s excitement because we’ve got another tournament to play.”
If Nelson has anything to say about it, the last tournament of her career will close with a storybook ending and the Gators will final be able to complete that final unfinished chapter.
NCAA DIVISION I SOFTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
WOMEN’S COLLEGE WORLD SERIES
At ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, Oklahoma City, Okla.
Thursday, May 28
Game 1: (6) Georgia (44-10) vs. (3) Washington (46-11), 1 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 2: (10) Arizona State (46-17) vs. Missouri (50-10), 3 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Friday, May 29
Game 5: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Saturday, May 30
Game 7: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, Noon ET (ESPN2)
Game 9: Game 7 winner vs. Game 5 loser, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Sunday, May 31
Game 11: Game 5 winner vs. Game 9 winner, 1 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 13: Game 11 winner vs. Game 11 loser (if necessary), 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Thursday, May 28
Game 3: (5) Michigan (46-10) vs. (4) Alabama (52-9), 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 4: (9) Arizona (46-15) vs. (1) Florida (60-3), 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Friday, May 29
Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Saturday, May 30
Game 8: Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 2 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 10: Game 8 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Sunday, May 31
Game 12: Game 6 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 3 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Game 14: Game 12 winner vs. Game 12 loser (if necessary), 9 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Monday, June 1
Game 1: Bracket One winner vs. Bracket Two winner, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Tuesday, June 2
Game 2: Bracket One winner vs. Bracket Two winner, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Wednesday, June 3
Game 3: Bracket One winner vs. Bracket Two winner (if necessary), 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2)