Kelly Barnhill

UF pitcher Kelly Barnhill pitches during Florida’s 3-0 loss against Alabama in game one of the NCAA Super Regional on May 25, 2017, at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.

Grace King / Alligator Staff

May 28, 2015: the last time Florida began play in the Women’s College World Series.

In the all-too-pivotal opening game, the Gators squared off against SEC rival Tennessee, swiftly taking down the Volunteers 7-2. The win stemmed from both the hitting and pitching efforts of Lauren Haeger, the 2015 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year.

In her first game since being crowned with the award, she proved her dominance by allowing just one hit in the victory.

But now, it’s 2017. Haeger has graduated, her time complete.

Instead, it’s sophomore pitcher Kelly Barnhill who will step into that commanding role in this year's Women's College World Series.

On Tuesday, she was granted the 2017 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year, just the second Gator ever to receive it after Haeger.

The Marietta, Georgia, native is also the second sophomore to ever be given this award, with Texas pitcher Cat Osterman receiving it in 2003.

“It’s really amazing to be chosen for this award as just a sophomore,” Barnhill said in a press release Tuesday. “There are so many amazing players out there and to be chosen at such a young age is really a special accomplishment.”

Barnhill is first in the nation in ERA (0.36), hits allowed per seven innings (2.74) and strikeouts per seven innings (13.4).

For coach Tim Walton, her award also signals the hard work his entire team exhibited throughout the entire season.

“Kelly winning this award is an accomplishment for everyone on our team,” Walton said in a release. “We have a lot of pride and a great work ethic, but I’m just so proud of Kelly embracing her role head on and working really hard.”

Now, two days after receiving what is arguably the most prestigious award in NCAA softball, Barnhill will also have an opportunity to showcase her talents on one of the biggest stages imaginable.

Florida’s run in the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City will begin today against No. 9-seeded Texas A&M.

Even though the Gators boast the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, the Aggies will pose a large challenge to overcome.

Both squads have posted similar stats in the regular season and postseason.

Since postseason play started  on May 11 with the SEC Tournament, Florida has gone 5-3.

Texas A&M, on the other hand, is 5-2 in postseason play and is coming off a three-game Super Regional victory against Tennessee.

When comparing each team’s batting average, the numbers are nearly identical, with both sitting right around .300.

But where the Gators pose their biggest threat is their pitching staff, claiming the lowest ERA in the country at 0.69.

It’s a threat catalyzed by Barnhill.

And even though she has yet to play in Oklahoma City, several teammates have been there before.

In Florida's opening game in 2015, then-freshman Kayli Kvistad hammered a two-run homer. Nicole DeWitt, also a freshman at the time, homered in the next game against LSU.

Then-sophomore Delanie Gourley’s pitching helped clinch the first game in the championship series versus Michigan, a series Florida eventually won.

But with UCLA and LSU positioned on Florida’s side of the bracket, the experience from upperclassman will be necessary.

Today’s opening pitch against the Aggies is set for noon.

Contact Cassie Amundson at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @camundson_.