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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

As Stacey Nelson walked from Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium to postgame interviews, the senior ace asked coach Tim Walton a simple question.

"Stacey gave me a hug and said, 'Coach, four years ago did you know that we'd be going back to our second College World Series?'" Walton said. "I told her, 'Four years ago, I didn't even know you were going to be this good and thanks for being that good.'"

Nelson (39-3, 0.41 ERA) was as good as she has ever been Sunday, leading UF to its second straight Women's College World Series appearance following two wins over California in the NCAA Super Regionals.

UF will play Arizona in the first round of the WCWS on Thursday night at 9 in Oklahoma City, Okla.

The No. 1 Gators (60-3) only put up four runs on seven hits in their doubleheader sweep of the No. 14 Bears (38-20), but Nelson allowed no runs in her 12 innings of work.

The right-hander pitched all seven innings of UF's 2-0 victory in Game 1 and worked five innings of relief in her team's 2-1, Super Regional-clinching win. Nelson struck out 19 batters between the two games, walked none and only gave up six hits.

Walton started sophomore Stephanie Brombacher in Game 2, but he went back to his ace to protect the team's 2-1 lead. Nelson came through even after pitching a complete game earlier in the day, throwing five scoreless innings and starting a key, momentum-killing double play in the sixth after the Bears put together two consecutive hits.

"All the great ones have that ability. She just doesn't buckle under pressure," Walton said. "In relief today, she was the best she's looked all year long."

After the game, Nelson said she had "a little flash" before turning the critical double play and she just had a feeling she would get a groundball hit at chest-level, make the throw to Corrie Brooks at third, who would then complete the play with a throw to first. The play unfolded exactly as Nelson's vision predicted it would.

"It's tough to get to this point, and we know it's tough," Nelson said. "To finally be in the College World Series, it's a great feeling of accomplishment. But at the same time, it's (a feeling of) excitement because we have another tournament to play."

The team celebrated its victory on the field after the final out of Game 2, dead-set on ringing in this year's WCWS berth the right way.

"We'd kind of been planning what we were going to do because last year we just kind of jumped up and down and didn't really do anything," second baseman Aja Paculba said. "Then this year we were just like, 'We're going all out and doing this, we're doing that.' I think we had fun this way."

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Add sadness to the list of emotions the Gators felt Sunday, as the team's seven seniors played their final game in Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.

With two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, catcher Kristina Hilberth went to the circle to tell Nelson that they were about to play their last out in their home stadium.

"The last pitch, I started crying," Hilberth said. "I was like, 'I need to catch this pitch first before I start crying.' Thank goodness it was a changeup."

But the Gators won't take too long to soak in the victories - Nelson said she'd focus on enjoying the wins until 5 p.m. Sunday (two hours after the game's finish) as the team has yet to accomplish the goal it set before the season even started: winning a national championship.

To improve on last year's semifinals loss, UF will need its batters to come through more than they did Sunday. The Gators went a combined 7 for 42 against the Bears, and the California pitchers retired UF in order in nine of 13 innings.

Paculba had all three of the Gators' RBIs on the day, including a home run on the 14th pitch of the team's first at-bat in Game 1.

"As the at-bat was going on longer, I was just like, 'I am not getting out now after all this,'" Paculba said. "When I hit it, I knew I hit it hard but I didn't think it was going over."

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