Tim Walton said it best on April 15.
“I really like our team,” the ninth-year coach said. “Are we talented enough to win the Women’s College World Series? I think yes. Are we capable of that? I think yes.”
Forty-nine days later, Walton’s thoughts were confirmed, as No. 5 seed Florida (55-12) defeated second-seeded Alabama (53-13) 6-3 on Tuesday to sweep the Crimson Tide and win the first national championship in Gators softball history.
“This is kind of a surreal moment for me right now sitting up here with Hannah and the other kids that bought into it this year,” Walton said.
After senior Hannah Rogers started and finished Florida’s first four games in the Women’s College World Series — giving up just three runs in 26 innings of work — Walton decided to roll the dice and give Lauren Haeger the start in the circle on Tuesday.
“It’s a three‑game series, and that’s how we’ve been doing it all year,” Haeger said. “Hannah has been doing great, and I told my team and told Hannah, I’m going to go as long and as hard as I can, and I knew I had two pitchers behind me that were going to shut everyone down, too.”
Haeger struggled in the first inning, giving up back-to-back singles to start the contest and surrendering a one-out RBI single to Alabama right fielder Jadyn Spencer to give the Crimson Tide an early 1-0 lead.
Florida responded in the bottom half of the frame, with senior Stephanie Tofft launching a Jaclyn Traina pitch over the left-field fence for a two-out home run to even the score.
The Gators tacked on four more runs in the bottom half of the frame, three of which came from a Kirsti Merritt blast to left field — her second long ball of the Women’s College World Series — to extend Florida’s lead to 5-1 and force Traina out of the circle after just 1.1 innings of work. UF plated its final run in the sixth inning when Tofft scored Stewart on a fielder’s choice.
Haeger surrendered a two-out home run in the third inning, but limited the damage to one in her final full inning of work. The Peoria, Ariz., was relieved by freshman lefty Delanie Gourley after giving up a leadoff single to Traina in the fourth inning.
Gourley, in her first appearance in the circle since throwing a no-hitter against FAMU in UF’s first game of NCAA action, pitched two scoreless innings to earn her 15th win of the season while Rogers earned her second save of the year by pitching the final two frames.
“We don’t have a superstar on our team,” Walton said. “We have a bunch of players that do their job, and today was a tribute to that. We got a Lauren quality start, Delanie gets the ‘W’ and Hannah gets the save. … For all of them to be a part of the this National Championship game was something very, very special.”
The Gators started the season with 22 straight wins, topping four ranked teams and shutting out seven teams in the process.
But after reaching the Southeastern Conference portion of the schedule, Florida hit a slump, going just 15-9 in league play to finish in a three-way tie for third one year after winning the conference outright.
Florida wasn’t at its high point at the end of the regular season. It went one-and-out in the SEC Tournament, a game that became the turning point of the season
“The Georgia loss was good for us,” Walton said before WCWS action began. “We actually got a couple days off and got humbled with our offense, so I think that helped us. We realized we had to make adjustments and do things different offensively and I think that was good.”
Florida finished its 11-game journey through the NCAA Tournament by outscoring opponents 82-10 with eight shutouts.
“Most teams set goals to win every series or win the SEC or do some things and this team actually set a goal to win a national championship,” Walton said. “It’s the first one we’ve ever talked about in my coaching … but this team felt like we had the parts and the pieces to do it.”
Even with the championship in hand, Florida isn’t finished yet.
Kelsey Stewart — who now owns UF’s highest career batting average in program history with a .408 clip at the plate — will lead off the offense for two more years.
Haeger and Gourley will command the circle — Haeger as a senior and Gourley as a sophomore.
Florida returns its entire outfield — with Briana Little and Bailey Castro going for their last run as Gators and Merritt heading into her junior year — and all of its infielders except Tofft return for a third year together.
Freshmen Justine McLean and Chelsea Herndon, who played contributing roles throughout the season, will develop with a year of experience under their belts.
The pieces are there for another run.
But for now, the Gators are going to take in the moment.
“All our hard work flashed through my brain — setting a goal of winning a National Championship and it actually coming true,” Haeger said. “We had our lows in our season, and we lost the grip on that goal, but it all worked out.”
Follow Jordan McPherson on Twitter @J_McPherson1126