When the No. 1 Gators’ softball team (24-0) visits No. 3 Auburn (22-1) for a weekend series starting tonight, the stakes will be a little higher than in a normal top-five matchup.
Florida’s head coach Tim Walton will be looking to earn his 700th career win.
At the helm of the program since 2006, Walton currently has a .791 career winning percentage, good enough for fourth-highest among active coaches and 13th all-time.
However, standing in the way of Walton’s milestone is an Auburn team that won the 2015 Southeastern Conference Tournament but is still bitter after Florida dashed its championship dreams in the Women’s College World Series semi-finals last May.
The series marks the end of the pre-conference schedule and beginning of SEC play.
“You’re playing against a team that is going to scout you more heavily,” Walton said.
“It’s a constant game of adjustment.”
This year, the Tigers claim the nation’s best batting average (.391) and on-base percentage (.507) while scoring the most runs per game (11).
By comparison, Florida ranks 12th in batting average (.363), second in on-base percentage (.498) and 18th in runs per game, averaging nearly four runs less per contest (7.13).
Auburn’s offensive attack is led by two dangerous hitters in junior infielder Kasey Cooper and senior outfielder Tiffany Howard. Cooper, a 2015 NFCA First Team All-American, has driven in the third most runs in the country this season (36) and has slugged seven home runs.
Howard leads the Tigers and ranks 10th nationally with a .538 batting average.
The teams also boast dominant pitching staffs.
With a minute 0.58 team earned run average, the Gators have the best pitching staff in the country. The trio of junior Delanie Gourley, sophomore Aleshia Ocasio and freshman Kelly Barnhill have given up only 13 earned runs this season in 145 innings pitched. Auburn is second with a 0.96 ERA and has allowed 19 earned runs in 138 innings.
Boasting an ERA of 0.41, freshman Makayla Martin is the Tigers’ ace, sitting right behind third-ranked Ocasio (.40) for the best in the country.
Martin also ranks in the top ten along with Gourley (2.81) and Barnhill (2.49) for fewest hits allowed per seven innings, averaging just 3.29.
Gourley is coming off the second no-hitter of her career Wednesday against South Dakota.
“We have a lot of good softball players,” Walton said.
“Our lineup is built to where we don’t have a lot … weaknesses, and I think the same with our pitching staff.”