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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Even Ernie Banks would've said, "Enough is enough already."

Despite the most hellacious start to a season in UF history - 13 games in the first 10 days - the No. 10 Gators (13-0) looked focused and crisp as they closed out the Cox Communications Classic on Sunday, inking their performance in the record books as the best start in school history.

In the first of two games Sunday, UF defeated North Carolina (8-2) 1-0 in a pitchers' duel that took two additional innings of international tiebreaker rules to decide.

All-American Stacey Nelson put the team on her back and carried them with a heroic performance, striking out eight and allowing only five hits in a complete game performance.

"I love playing good teams; they were great hitters," Nelson said.

Nelson went toe-to-toe matching zeros with preseason All-ACC selection Lisa Norris until the Tar Heels' pitcher finally blinked in the top of the ninth inning and allowed a run.

Catcher Kristina Hilberth led off the inning with a sacrifice bunt that moved Kim Waleszonia - who started on second base due to the tiebreaker rules - to third.

Freshman Aja Paculba came to the plate next and rocketed a double into the right-center field gap, scoring Waleszonia for what would be the decisive run.

"I was off balance all day, and I finally just stayed back," said Paculba, who was thrown out at third trying to stretch the hit to a triple.

Paculba, who in the seventh inning broke up a streak of 16 consecutive Gators retired by Norris, was the only UF player to record multiple hits for an offense that produced just four the entire game.

"[Norris] was probably the best pitcher we've faced all season," Paculba said.

The close match culminated in an exciting play at the plate to start the bottom half of what would be the last inning.

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UNC pinch-runner Christine Knauer was placed on second to start the inning.

Then sophomore first baseman Danielle Spaulding took a one-ball, two-strike pitch from Nelson into right field. Knauer rounded third and headed home as senior Mary Ratliff gathered the ball and fired home to Hilberth, who blocked the plate and applied the tag before Knauer could score the game-tying run.

"When I saw that throw from Mary, and I saw Kristina tag the girl, I started jumping and yelling," Nelson said. "Kristina actually had to settle me down and say, 'There's still a game going on.'"

With runners on first and third and two outs in the inning, third baseman Corrie Brooks knocked down a line drive off the bat of Norris, picked it up and threw it to first base in time to get the runner by just a step.

After a nail-biting first game, UF defeated Stetson (6-4) easily in a mercy-rule-shortened 8-0 affair.

Freshman Stephanie Brombacher, who earned three wins this weekend, shut out the Hatters on her way to her sixth victory of the season.

Brombacher shut out East Tennessee on Friday before earning another victory against the Buccaneers on Saturday in a 10-1 rout.

Nelson's hard-earned win against UNC on Sunday was her second against the Tar Heels during the weekend - she had pitched a complete-game 4-0 shutout the day before.

The first win by a pitcher not named Nelson or Brombacher was also recorded in the tournament when freshman Kelsey Bruder pitched three strong innings of relief in a 10-0 victory against the College of Charleston.

Coach Tim Walton was pleased with his team's performance but not surprised by its early-season success.

"13-0, 12-1. This is exactly what I was preparing myself for with this kind of team," he said. "We got some good players."

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