OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – Last season, the top-ranked Florida Gators started off their run in the Women’s College World Series on the wrong foot. This time, they weren’t going to waste any time making sure history didn’t repeat itself.
Tim Walton’s Gators jumped all over the Wildcats early with home runs by junior Francesca Enea and sophomore Megan Bush, and behind a two-hitter by senior All-America ace Stacey Nelson, Florida won 3-0 at the ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.
Florida (61-3) advances into the winners’ bracket to take on Michigan, which defeated Alabama 6-1. The game is scheduled for 9 p.m. Friday. It will be the teams’ second meeting this season. Florida defeated Michigan 4-0 on Feb. 25 at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium on a Nelson 3-hitter.
“Any time you can beat Arizona at the WCWS, you are doing something right,” Walton said. “We have a lot of respect for what coach (Mike) Candrea has built there. I know personally that he has done, without mentoring me personally, a great job of showing me the way to build a program. I want to try to emulate a lot of the things he does with class.”
The Wildcats led off the game with consecutive singles and put Nelson (40-3) in the always precarious position of facing runners on second and third with only one out after a fielder’s choice. But Nelson dug deep and took her game to another level, showing why she has been Florida’s rock during its dominating run.
“I walked out there to the mound and talked about doing a good job by using the defense,” Walton said. “Sometimes in the first inning you try to throw as hard as you possibly can and get outs and she really did settle down. Her ball was breaking and she was really throwing hard.”
Nelson proceeded to strike out Arizona catcher Stacie Chambers, who leads the nation in home runs (31) and RBI (96), and induced Arizona first baseman Sam Banister into a pop out to the pitcher to end the threat.
“They had first and second, no outs and I kind of just paused and said, ‘Stacey. You really need to get it together,’” Nelson said. “I was just trying to put it in spots where my defense could get it and things just worked out.”
As Arizona would soon find out, you have to take advantage of any opportunities afforded to you against Nelson because they are few and far between. Those hits would be the only two Nelson gave up on the evening as she recorded 12 strikeouts, including three of Chambers, in throwing her 21st shutout.
The victory was Florida’s 27th straight since a 6-4 loss to visiting Alabama on March 29 and its 50th in its last 51 outings. Following a 1-0 nine-inning loss to Washington on Feb. 20 in the Cathedral City Classic in Palm Springs, Calif., Florida ran off 23 straight victories. The Gators’ only other loss was a 1-0 setback to Baylor on Feb. 8 in Gainesville.
The Gators started off the bottom of the first in similar fashion on a walk by sophomore Aja Paculba and a fielder’s choice to short by senior Kristina Hilberth to give the Gators runners on first and second. Arizona pitcher Lindsey Sisk seemed to feed off Nelson’s first-inning escape by inducing senior Ali Gardiner to hit into a double play, leaving the Gators with two outs and a runner on second.
But Enea changed all of that with one swing of the bat, launching a deep home run over the centerfield wall to give the Gators a 2-0 lead, more than enough for Nelson to work with. The home run was Enea’s 18th of the year, a Florida single-season record, and moved her team-leading RBI total to 71.
“I was just trying to do what I do with the pitch,” Enea said. “I fouled a couple off before. I just told myself to stay down and go with whatever she threw at me next. I just had a good shot and I saw the pitch well and I saw that it went really far and I was happy.”
But Nelson didn’t let herself get comfortable with the two-run cushion. She continued to bring the heat in the second inning, stifling Arizona’s bats with three strikeouts.
“I never — the whole game — felt out of trouble,” Nelson said. “I knew that I had a three-run cushion, but knowing the offense Arizona has, and even in the seventh inning with two outs I was still, ‘Stacey you need to get it done. Don’t let up.’ It was never really easy.”
Bush added to that cushion in the second inning with her leadoff home run to left field, her 15th of the year and Florida’s 83rd this season, giving the Gators a 3-0 lead.
Arizona immediately went to its bullpen, bringing in reliever Sarah Akamine, who stopped the bleeding before the game got out of hand as she struck out three of the next four batters, only allowing a Paculba single up the middle.
“I think this is what I really needed,” said Bush, who had a lackluster showing at the Women’s College World Series last year. “Hopefully this will keep the momentum going, not only for me but for the team.”
Arizona finally seemed to settle down after the switch to Akamine, who looked like she figured out Florida’s bats, only allowing consecutive two-out singles by freshman Alicia Sisco and senior Kim Waleszonia in the fourth inning that didn’t get cashed in by Paculba.
“Not until the game was over did I feel comfortable with the way they played,” Walton said. “Sarah Akamine obviously came in and did a phenomenal job pitching and held us in check. Give her a lot of credit, I thought their defense really kept the game tight too.”
Unfortunately for Akamine, her hitters were unable to figure out Nelson. As Nelson picked up steam, the strikeouts continued to pile up. Nelson only allowed one runner to reach base on walks in each of the next two innings while mowing down five batters on strikes.
While Nelson’s weapon of choice was the strikeout, Akamine matched her out-for-out by inducing Florida’s batters into five groundouts in the fifth and sixth innings, adding in a strikeout for good measure.
But ultimately Akamine’s entrance proved to be too little too late for the Wildcats, as Nelson completely shut down Arizona’s potent offense, starting the Gators off on the right foot — the winner’s foot — this time in the College World Series.
“The good thing is that we’re in the winners’ bracket,” Walton said. “We don’t have to worry about lose and go home. I think the preparation will be fairly similar. We played them (Michigan) already this year, at the end of their long road trip. They’re as hot as any team in the World Series. They look really good. So we’re going to have to pull out the video machine again and hopefully things will work out.”
They did this time for Florida on Opening Night of the Women’s College World Series.
Thursday’s other games
(5) Michigan 6, (4) Alabama 1: The Wolverines (47-10) made their long-awaited return since winning in 2005 and stunned Alabama. It’s the second straight year that Alabama (52-10) will be trying to find its way out of the losers’ bracket. Last year, Alabama lost to eventual champion Arizona State, 3-1, won two losers’ bracket games and then fell again to the Sun Devils, 3-1.
Michigan got on the board in the second inning by working pitch counts against Alabama starter Kelsi Dunne, who was coming off a pair of 5-inning no-hitters in last week’s Super Regional at Tuscaloosa against Jacksonville State. Dunne (27-4) eventually walked Teddi Ewing with the bases loaded and Michigan led 1-0.
Michigan designated player Amanda Chidester extended the lead with a deep home run to center field that Alabama centerfielder Brittany Rogers could not corral. Rogers flipped over the wall on the play.
Alabama had a golden opportunity to cut into Michigan’s 3-0 lead in the bottom of the fifth when Michigan pitcher Nikki Nemitz hit three batters in the inning to load the bases with two outs. But Rogers hit a harmless grounder back to the pitcher to end the threat.
The wheels fell off for the Tide in the top of the sixth when Michigan scored three times to take a 6-0 lead. Ewing started the rally with her third hit of the game to third baseman Kelley Montalvo, who collided with Dunne on the play leading to an errant throw to first base that brought in the first run. Then Alabama shortstop Kellie Eubanks hesitated on a throw to first, allowing another run to score. Roya St. Clair finished off the inning with an RBI single.
Nemitz (28-5) finished the game with five strikeouts, only allowing three hits and a meaningless seventh-inning run. Dunne had a rough outing, allowing eight hits and six runs (four earned) while striking out four. Alabama plays Arizona at 2 p.m. Saturday.
(9) Arizona State 7, Missouri 3: Jessica Mapes and Taylor Haro each had four base hits as defending national champion Arizona State (47-17) banged out 13 singles and chased starter Chelsea Thomas.
Marla Schweisberger hit a solo home run off Hillary Bach (31-9), and Rhea Taylor had an RBI double for the only two extra-base hits by Missouri (50-11).
(3) Washington 3, (6) Georgia 1: Freshman Niki Williams homered for the first time in three months while Danielle Lawrie threw a 6-hitter as the Huskies (47-11) dropped the Bulldogs (44-11) into a losers’ bracket game against Missouri on Saturday at noon ET.
Williams broke a scoreless tie in the bottom of the fourth with her home run off Georgia’s Christie Hamilton (24-9). Williams, who bats ninth for Washington, hadn’t hit a home run since Feb. 27.
Lawrie (38-7), a Canadian Olympian, struck out five to bring her total to 477 this season. Taylor Schlopy had an RBI double for Georgia.
NCAA DIVISION I SOFTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
WOMEN’S COLLEGE WORLD SERIES
At ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, Oklahoma City, Okla.
Thursday, May 28
Game 1: (3) Washington 3, (6) Georgia 1
Game 2: (10) Arizona State 7, Missouri 3
Friday, May 29
Game 5: (3) Washington (47-11) vs. (10) Arizona State (47-17), 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Saturday, May 30
Game 7: (6) Georgia (44-11) vs. Missouri (50-11), 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 6, (4) Alabama 1
Game 4: (1) Florida 3, (9) Arizona 0
Friday, May 29
Game 6: (5) Michigan (46-11) vs. (1) Florida (61-3), 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Saturday, May 30
Game 8: (4) Alabama (52-10) vs. (9) Arizona (46-16), 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)