Gator softball ready for regional

It’s important to be first. To get the first strike, to get the first out, to score the first run, to win the first game. So it’s understandable why a sense of urgency has swept over the University of Florida softball team as it prepares for Texas A&M in NCAA Super Regional play this weekend.

The winner of the best-of-three affair advances to the Softball College World Series, an event reserved for the top eight teams in the land. Momentum has been generated, but now it must be maintained. A postseason depends upon it.

The first pitch is set for 7:30 p.m. and will be televised by ESPN.

“(The first game) is huge,” UF coach Tim Walton said. “You look at our successes over the season and I look at where we’re at. We won the first game of the SEC tournament. We won the first game of the regional. It’s not dire, but I think it’s pretty important.”

Florida (49-20) has set a school record for victories and is thirsting for more as it enters its first Super Regional. The Gators’ chances hinge on Stacey Nelson, their marvelous sophomore pitcher, who sports a 0.88 earned run average along with a school record 33 victories. She has 273 strikeouts against 68 walks.

The only concern at this point is durability. Nelson has logged 301.1 innings, second most in the Southeastern Conference this season.

“I think that’s everyone’s issue at this point,” Walton said. “I think when you get to these big games, you rely a lot on adrenaline. The strength and conditioning program we have here is obviously very good. They’re all young. They can sustain a lot of things, but you definitely start to worry about the injuries, not just in the pitching staff, but overall as well.”

UF can usually rely on Nelson to be competitive, but sometimes the club struggles against quality pitching. Offensively, the Gators are paced by Kim Waleszonia (.365, 28 RBI), Melissa Zick (.312, 40 RBI), Ali Gardiner (.300, 40 RBI) and Mary Ratliff (.294, 28 RBI). Hits will tough to come by this weekend, so Gator batters will have to be resourceful.

“I always want us to hit better, but to me it’s about productive at-bats,” Walton said. “You can’t throw at-bats away. I hate wasting at-bats.  I hate going up there and swinging at the first pitch and it’s a new pitcher when you haven’t had a chance to see what’s going on. To me, it’s about being smart with your opportunities. It’s not so much about having to get a hit every time, it’s about getting quality at-bats. I think that’s important this weekend. Last weekend we had some good at-bats, we had some clutch hits, so I think overall: Are we there yet? No. Are we better individually in some cases? Most definitely.”

Texas A&M (44-11) is led by Megan Gibson (.391, 39 RBI, 11 HR), Sharonda McDonald (.391, 7 RBI, 37 SBs) and Amanda Scarborough (.346, 46 RBI, 7 HR). Scarborough (24-7, 1.04 ERA) and Gibson (17-4, 1.52 ERA) are the Aggies’ top two pitchers.

“Florida has played a lot of really tough teams this year just as we have,” A&M coach Jo Evans said. “Their pitcher, Nelson, does a very nice job and has a low ERA. She doesn’t throw a ton of strikeouts, but gets outs. She has great accuracy and a nice changeup. They have speed, so they steal quite a few bases. Our team is similar in the sense that we have great pitching, great speed on the bases, and we have great experience. So our teams match up well.”

McDonald, a center fielder, dominated regionals last weekend, with a 12-for-16 performance at the plate. She also stole five bases.

“I felt great at the plate,” McDonald said. “I felt like my timing was perfect and that’s a great thing for this time of the year.”

Although the both teams appear evenly matched, the Aggies will be favored. Why? Home-field advantage. A&M is 25-3 in College Station this spring; 10-7 on the road, a disparity Walton recognizes.

“As a former baseball player and softball coach in the Big 12 and Big 8, I know exactly what the people of College Station and the people of Texas like about the Aggies,” Walton said. “It doesn’t matter what the record is like. They are going to support their team with blood, sweat and tears. I told them (Florida team) from day one that we can prepare for A&M. We can watch them on video, but the one thing I can’t prepare you for is the crowd. On the flipside of that, that says a lot about where our sport has come. We have a lot of respect for what Texas A&M has done. They have laid the foundation for college softball, in my opinion. They are the grassroots of college softball.”

Not that Florida is intimidated. Regular-season road success builds postseason confidence.

“No question,” Walton said. “We beat Arizona. We beat Oregon. You look at and you say, ‘Well if we come out of this tournament 2-3, then we’ve had a good weekend. We go 4-1. Stacey Nelson was unbelievable. She was great against Arizona. She was great against Oregon. She was great against New Mexico. I think that set the tone for us building up expectations.”