Aleshia Ocasio

Aleshia Ocasio swings during Florida's 15-8 win against Bethune-Cookman on March 29, 2017, at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.

Charles Hatcher / Alligator Staff

After an easy victory over Florida A&M in the opening round of the Gainesville Regional, the No. 1 Florida softball team found itself in a tougher battle against the Oklahoma State Cowgirls.

Florida’s Aleshia Ocasio held her stance at the plate in the bottom of the fourth inning with the score knotted at zero.

An OSU pitch found contact on the edge of Ocasio’s bat, sending the ball flying and bringing home two Florida runners.

The opening score of the game cemented the lead for the Gators (52-6), who would maintain that control behind the clutch play of pitcher Kelly Barnhill and earn a berth to the Gainesville Regional Final on Sunday.

The Cowgirls (36-24) were coming off an impressive defensive performance the previous day against FIU in which senior pitcher Brandi Needham allowed three hits and no runs throughout the complete game.

Needham showed up against the Gators as well, allowing three hits in four innings but giving up that two-run score in the fourth to conclude her outing.

On the other side, Kelly Barnhill played to near perfection in her first start as a Gator in the postseason. The sophomore had one inning of postseason experience prior to Saturday, a three-strikeout performance against Alabama State in the 2016 Gainesville Regional opening round.

After three innings, Barnhill looked like a postseason veteran in the circle, striking out seven of the first nine batters she faced.

Desperate for any crack at offense, the Cowgirls swung their bats wildly at Barnhill’s pitches early on. A runner didn’t reach base until the fifth inning, when third baseman Rylee Bayless got to first due to a walk.

In the sixth inning, Barnhill pushed her way out of a tough situation when an OSU walk and single down the right field line left a runner threatening on third base.

Barnhill responded with a three-pitch strikeout to retire the side and leave two Cowgirl baserunners stranded. She concluded the night with 15 strikeouts while allowing one hit and two walks.

The Gators offense still has yet to find a consistent groove, however. The team hung nine runs on nine hits against the Rattlers just the day before.

In comparison, the team totaled three hits in 20 total at-bats against two pitchers on Saturday. While one was a seasoned senior, the other was a freshman getting her first look at postseason action.

The latter, Logan Simunek, held the Gators scoreless in the game’s final two innings.

The Gators first weekend of the postseason concludes with a Regional Final against Oklahoma State again, which beat FIU 5-0 for another chance against Florida.

The duel takes place at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium on Sunday at noon.

Contact Skyler Lebron at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @SkylerLebron.