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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Despite being the top-ranked team in the country for the last 10 weeks and sweeping their way through early postseason play, coach Tim Walton and his team are adopting the mentality of an underdog.

No. 1 UF (60-3) will continue its quest for the program's first national title tonight at 9 against No. 9 Arizona (46-15) in the first round of the Women's College World Series in ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.

The Wildcats are one of the most storied programs in college softball, having made it to the WCWS 21 out of the last 22 years.

Arizona first baseman Sam Bannister said her team was taking the role of underdog in stride despite its successful history and the fact that she would not have given the Wildcats that title in the first place.

Given the fact that anything can happen once the tournament starts &ndash every team is now effectively 0-0 &ndash Walton was quick to point out that his team's successful season does not provide it with any discernible advantage.

"Facing Arizona in the first round, I'll go with the opposite of what Sam said and say that we're the underdog," Walton said. "They have won more national championship games here than we ever have at this stage. Our kids are embracing that role and we have to do a good job at staying focused and staying grounded."

A team as consistently on top of the college softball world like Arizona could negate the edge UF has in terms of its experience and familiarity with the WCWS, both luxuries the Gators did not have last year.

"I feel like our team has a little bit more experience coming back for a second year," catcher Kristina Hilberth said. "Obviously playing a team like Arizona, who has a lot of experience, in the first round, we're going to have to battle it out."

Ever since their loss to Texas A&M in the semifinals of last year's WCWS, the Gators have been looking forward to the final tournament of the season. It's no secret that UF set out to win a national championship after getting a taste of postseason success last season.

But after winning the NCAA Super Regional in Gainesville last weekend, Hilberth said the team still has the same mindset it has had all year: Every team will give the Gators its best shot, so they cannot look past anyone.

"We're ready, but we're just going to take it one game at a time," Hilberth said. "We're excited to get out to Oklahoma City, but you can't win the whole thing until you win the first game."

The competition between the two teams will be indicative of a larger conflict throughout this year's WCWS. The Pacific-10 Conference, usually the powerhouse conference, and Southeastern Conference are represented by three teams each.

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"I said a long time ago that when the SEC got serious about something, they were going to do it right," Arizona coach Mike Candrea said. "I think really when the SEC got involved with women's college softball, the parity kind of spread much quicker, kind of like what baseball experienced 20 years ago. So it wasn't a surprise, it was just a matter of time."

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