Lauren Haeger set the tone for UF in the Gainesville NCAA Regional final against UCF in more ways than one.
Starting her first NCAA Tournament game in the circle since May 19, 2012, Haeger pitched a five-hit shutout as the Gators (48-11) blanked the Knights (43-18) — their third and final opponent of the regional round — 7-0 at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.
“If they don’t score, they don’t win,” Haeger said. “So, we take everything inning by inning like it’s its own game in itself and we just want to win every inning.”
Haeger needed only 81 pitches to retire all 25 UCF batters she faced on Saturday. The Peoria, Ariz., native threw five strikeouts while not allowing a free pass against the Knights. After giving up back-to-back singles in the bottom of the first, Haeger retired 14 consecutive batters and only allowed one runner to reach scoring position in the contest.
“I was a little bit more calm than usual,” Haeger said. “The first inning, I’m going to be completely honest, I was kind of everywhere and I just needed to settle down a little bit. But after that, I settled in really nicely.”
In addition to blanking the Knights and dropping her ERA to a career-best 1.57, Haeger opened up scoring in the regional final by blasting a one-out, two-run home run to center field in the first inning.
Florida added one more run in the first when Taylor Schwarz scored Briana Little after UCF third baseman Farrah Sullivan dropped the hard-hit ball. Schwarz was tagged out trying to advance to second base.
“I like getting the runs early, obviously,” coach Tim Walton said. “Lauren’s bomb in the first inning, that was a tone setter for us.”
The Gators added the rest of their runs on a Taylore Fuller RBI single, a Haeger fielder’s choice, and a Kirsti Merritt two-RBI single.
Merritt, who drove in Florida’s 28th and 29th runs of the weekend, said that Haeger’s dominance to start the game helped settle the rest of the team down at the plate.
“It’s always easier to play when we already have a couple of runs on the board, but we do such a good job even when there’s not runs on the board,” the Lake Panasoffkee native said. “Just Lauren going out there and getting the runs on the board was great. She didn’t have a problem doing that.”
Florida will now host No. 12 seed Washington in the NCAA Super Regionals next weekend. The Huskies (36-13) swept their regional in a similar fashion to the Gators, winning all three contests by a combined 26-0 score.
“Washington is a whole other challenge but we’ll take advantage of this feeling that we have right now,” Walton said. “It’s very seldom do you play in a Regional where your batting average goes up, your ERA goes down and those kinds of things. So, we’ll take full advantage of that.”
Follow Jordan McPherson on Twitter @J_McPherson1126