School was in session in Tuscaloosa and the Florida Gators failed their first test.
With the opportunity to clinch sole possession of a regular season Southeastern Conference title, the Gators dropped two of three vs. the Alabama Crimson Tide and entered the SEC Tournament as the third seed.
Florida faces the sixth-seeded LSU Tigers (34-21, 15-13) 12 p.m. ET at Rhoads Stadium Thursday.
After finishing Alabama series, the Gators (44-10, 21-7) stayed in Tuscaloosa for the last week in preparation for the single-elimination tournament.
“We have a lot of growing up to do and this is one of the places that’ll grow you up,” Gators coach Walton said before departing for Tuscaloosa May 3. “It has grown every one of our players up in their careers. Stacey Nelson gave up a walk off home run at Alabama one year and she learned a heck of a lot from it. Mary Ratliff hit a grand slam at Alabama one time and she learned a lot from that. There’s a lot of learning lessons to be played at Alabama. I think both of our teams are national caliber teams and playing each other does a lot of things for us and gets us better.”
Whether No. 7 Florida learned its lesson from squandering a regular season SEC title remains unanswered, but the Gators turned their sights to LSU Tuesday.
The Gators split a home doubleheader vs. LSU (2-1, 0-1) Apr. 24. Both pitching staffs surrendered a combined four earned runs over 29.1 innings.
A Michelle Moultrie walk-off RBI double in the eighth inning clinched the first game.
Florida found itself trailing in both games in the seventh. LSU right-handers Rachele Fico (Game 1) and Brittany Mack (Game 2) held the Florida offense in check.
With the week layoff in Tuscaloosa, the Gators had plenty of preparation. Right-hander Hannah Rogers (26-6, 1.26) tossed eight strong in the Game 1 win against the Tigers.
“Since we don’t have any school and we don’t have any homework, maybe have softball as our homework,” Rogers said. “Just try and watch as much video as we can.”
No video could ready Florida for the environment meeting them Thursday. That’s exactly what playing in front of 10,547 fans last weekend can provide a team.
Seven of 16 players on the Florida roster are true freshman suiting for their first conference tournament.
“They have an overhanging stadium, which really creates a lot different intensity and atmosphere,” Walton said. “A lot of noise levels maybe a lot of players haven’t been used to before.”
Florida looks for its third SEC Tournament title after winning back-to-back championships from 2008-2009.
If the Gators can hold off roadblock No.1 in LSU, Florida plays the winner of Tennessee vs. Auburn 3 p.m. ET on Friday.
For the Gators, the last week and entire season comes down to the SEC Tournament opener.
“That’s what you prepare for all year long,” Walton said. “That’s what we’ve been doing. They’ve known we were going to do the trip this way for almost a year now. I set the schedule up and so it’s something I obviously did on purpose. When we are going all the way there, why come all the home to go back there again — one day off and come back? Ultimately I think it’s going to be good for our bodies to stay in one place. Hopefully that’ll keep us more prepared.”
SEC Tournament Notes
– ESPNU will broadcast the game on national television. The game can be viewed online as well through watchESPN.com.
– The SEC tabbed Michelle Moultrie as its SEC Player of the Year on Wednesday. She becomes the fourth Gators softball player to earn the award.
– For a team who puts together the occasional music video, entertainment shouldn’t have been hard to find this past week in Tuscaloosa. “There is a lot of things to see in Alabama,” Walton said. “We’ll hit up a couple Hall of Fame museums and see a lot of wonderful dining facilities and hopefully a movie or two. It’ll be fun.”
– LSU coach Beth Torina starred for Florida as a pitcher, from 1997-2000, leading the Gators to its first-ever SEC regular season championship in 1998 with 11 wins from the circle. With her game 1 victory vs. LSU Apr. 24, Rogers tied Torina on the all-time list at Florida with 60 wins.
– LSU leads the all-time series between the schools 29-19. The Gators are 2-5 at neutral sites and sport a 17-22 record in the conference tournament.
– Florida won its three SEC regular season titles in 1998, 2008 and 2009 and topped the SEC Eastern Division five times. Tennessee finished ahead of Florida this season.
SEC Tournament seeds
8. Mississippi State