With a nail-biting 1-0 win over UAB Sunday afternoon, the Florida Gators are headed to Oklahoma City for the 2013 Women’s College World Series. For the fifth time in six years, Tim Walton will lead his Lady Gator team into the final weekend of the collegiate softball season.
Many were surprised to see Hannah Rogers get the start on the mound for the Gators for the second game in a row. Rogers quickly quieted any doubters as she struck out the first three batters in the ballgame. Rogers was a machine all day, striking out seven while only allowing four hits and two walks in a complete game performance. Coach Tim Walton could not have been prouder, “”She was really good today, she struck out five of the first six batters. She really commanded her pitches and she had her inside and outside pitches going well.”
Florida struggled early on at the plate but was still able to make more solid contact early against Lauren Webster then they did against Lannah Campbell a day earlier. Florida got into some trouble in the bottom of the third as UAB had a runner on third with just one out in the inning. From there, Hannah Rogers just continued to do what she has done all season long, forcing the next two UAB batters into two quick hits back to the mound allowing Florida to escape the inning unscathed.
The momentum carried into the top of the fourth for the Gators as they lead the inning off with a single shot to right field. Taylor Schwarz took the plate with two outs and a Florida team on her back looking desperately for any offensive firepower. Schwarz battled before blasting a double to the center field wall to bring in the decisive first run of the game.
With one out in the bottom of the seventh UAB’s Anna Kimbrel hit a double off the center field wall making Florida fans a little bit more moist in the final inning at the Hole in Gainesville. A blooper to right field gave the Gators two out as the Florida faithful began to roar with one out left for a trip to Oklahoma City. A shot up the center looked as if it would find a way through the gap and tie the game at one.
Not today though; Kelsey Stewart wasn’t going to let that happen. Stewart reacted quickly, making a diving play to stop the ball and then firing a quick ball from her knee’s to the catcher who easily tagged Kimbrel rounding third. The players then stormed the mound as that would be the final play to send Florida to the 2013 WCWS.
Stewart knew it was her time to step up in the game’s final play, “Everyday at practice we go through game winners. Me and Katie [Medina] just went up to each other and had just said, ‘game winner’. I never had a doubt the ball was going through the infield.” Her coach wasn’t so sure, as he admittedly said following the game that he thought the ball was going up the middle for a single. “She got a great jump on it, knocked it down,” Walton said. “I was just hoping she wouldn’t throw the ball to first base cause there was no chance of getting her at first. Then she came up on her knees and looked right to the plate. Honestly, she threw her out by a lot but it’s a closer play then it looks because if she hesitates or does the wrong thing, they get a run. I’m really proud of her for being heads up.”
Junior Kelsey Horton was elated to head back to Oklahoma City with her teammates following the disappointment of last season, “I’m just really excited. That’s the biggest stage you can play softball on so it’s just really exciting and i’m just so happy I get to experience it with these sixteen girls.” The softball team has stood behind the idea of “Sixteen Strong” all season long in reference to the family relationship the team shares with each other.
The Florida players said they were forbidden all week by coach Walton to talk about the chance of playing in the WCWS. “I just have to remind myself, we’re going to the College World Series, no doubt,” an elated Kelsey Stewart said following the win. “It’s a completely different feeling,” Coach Walton said of this team versus his past World Series squads. “Kelsey Bruder being on our staff just talked about how she’s so happy for these players because they relish it a little different then her teams did. We played this season as an underdog and we came in kind of noticed. I’m really proud, this is a completely different feeling, a very special feeling for these young players because they don’t understand what they’ve accomplished in such a short period of time. ”
The number two seeded Florida Gators will face the seven seeded Tennessee Volunteers in their first match up in Oklahoma City. The Gators beat the Volunteers two to one in a three game series in Gainesville earlier this season. “The whole series was only separated by three hits, two by us and one by them,” Walton said in anticipation of facing the SEC foe once again. “Tennessee was the team I picked to win the SEC this season, Tennessee was also my preseason favorite for the College World Series Championship. I think they have one of the best teams in the country and I’ve always thought that…The only surprise I guess would be that we’re the two seed and they’re the seven seed.”
Every single match up between the two SEC rivals during the regular season went to extra innings, i’d say it’s safe to bet fans are in for another treat Thursday afternoon.