The Florida Gators softball team is headed to Oklahoma City for the third straight season after an emotional extra-inning walk off win over the Tennessee Volunteers.
Jaimie Hoover and senior leader Amanda Lorenz came to save the day in the bottom of the 8th as the Gators took Game 3 on Sunday afternoon.
But before that, Kelly Barnhill was set on cruise control for six innings of shutout softball. The Vols threatened here and there, but could never string enough hits together to take advantage.
Meanwhile, Florida gave her just enough backup at the plate to get the job done.
Lorenz drew a leadoff walk to start the game, followed by some miscommunication by Tennessee on a popup from Hannah Adams to shallow center field. That put runners on first and second for Sophia Reynoso with two outs.
Reynoso drove one to right center to bring in Lorenz and give the Gators a 1-0 lead.
From there, Tennessee pitcher Ashley Rogers settled in to retire 19 of the next 21 batters. Her changeup fooled almost every Florida hitter she faced, especially through the middle of the order.
Barnhill met some trouble when Aubrey Leach grounded it back to her with one out in the 6th and she could not make the play at first. As she does with almost every ground ball hit her way, she underhanded it to Lorenz instead of quickly firing a throw over, which likely made the difference on the play.
Barnhill allowed a second base runner when a pitch just brushed Amanda Ayala on the wrist.
With runners at first and second and just one out, Tennessee made the peculiar decision to attempt a steal of third base. Jordan Roberts hadn’t had her best day behind the plate, but she hosed Leach to get the second out and Barnhill finished the inning off with a strikeout.
The entire game, it felt like the Gators would need more than one run to get the win, but with just three outs standing between them and a trip to the Women’s College World Series, it started to seem as if that’s all it would take. Until Haley Bearden stepped up to the plate.
The Vols’ best power hitter took the first pitch she saw over the right center field wall. Just like that, Florida found its back against the wall once again.
The Gators couldn’t do anything in the bottom of the 7th, and really hadn’t done much since the first inning. For the second day in a row, the teams were headed to extras, and all momentum began swinging in Tennessee’s favor.
Barnhill had already thrown more than 350 pitches over the course of the weekend. It was impossible to tell as she sat the Vols down 1-2-3 in the 8th.
In the bottom of the inning, Florida’s best hitter came through with a one-out double down the left field line. Tennessee intentionally walked Kendyl Lindaman to bring Adams up with Lorenz in scoring position.
Adams had arguably been the toughest out of the series, but she hit a hard grounder to the first baseman. That advanced the runners to second and third.
Hoover stepped up to the plate. She hadn’t had her best day to say the least, with three strikeouts to her name. She just didn’t look comfortable at all.
But none of that mattered when she smacked a line drive to left field to send Lorenz home and her team to OKC.
The Gators just continue to make it all come together when it matters most. Barnhill put on a gutsy performance all weekend long and the offense came through with the season on the line.
It’s going to take a lot more of that to come away with a national championship, but Florida is another step closer. Oklahoma State will be the first opponent in WCWS play.