For the sixth time in coach Tim Walton’s tenure, the Gators are heading to the Women’s College World Series.
And with play starting today at noon against Baylor, Walton has no doubt Florida can end up on top in Oklahoma City.
“We’ve established that culture that we want to end our season at the College World Series,” the ninth-year coach said. “This team is no different than any other.”
• • •
In order to reach Oklahoma City, Florida had to take out a hot-hitting Washington team in the Super Regionals.
And coming off a Seattle regional where they blanked their three opponents by a combined score of 26-0, the Huskies were not going down without a fight.
“I had a gut feeling this was going to go to a three-game series just by the nature of the stuff that I saw on film,” Walton said.
Florida took an easy 9-0 win on Saturday, needing just one win against Washington on Sunday to punch its ticket to Oklahoma City.
After Washington took the 4-3 win in Game 2, the tiebreaker that immediately followed experienced weather delays — nearly six hours worth.
But after the rain cleared on two different occasions, the Gators were victorious, pulling out an 8-0 victory in five innings of work.
“I thought they really could’ve easily hung their heads after playing the first game well and just getting beat,” Walton said. “At the end of the day I believe we left no doubt that we deserve to move on to the College World Series.”
• • •
Fresh off the first rain delay in the winner-take-all match against Washington, Kelsey Stewart made a hit that symbolized her role in Florida’s offense.
Facing a 1-1 count with two outs in the bottom of the fourth, the sophomore struck a three-run home run to right field to give Florida a 4-0 lead right after a crack of lightning lit up the sky.
But Stewart didn’t see the bolt that brightened the grey-filled sky over Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.
She didn’t need to.
“I heard everybody with their oohs and ahhs,” she said.
Even without seeing the lightning crack, Stewart’s seventh home run lit up Florida’s offense just like she has done all season.
The Wichita, Kan., native leads UF in batting average (.435), doubles (14), triples (6), stolen bases (34) and multi-hit games (29) good enough for first-team All-American status.
And after making it to the Super Regional for the second time in her career, Stewart knew Florida wasn’t going to lie down.
“Our hype number was super high at that point,” Stewart said. “I knew there was no losing for my team. I knew my senior pitcher was going to go out there and wasn’t going to let us lose, and I knew all of the girls were still going to be up and fight until the end.”
• • •
Now that they’re one of the final eight teams competing in Division I softball, the Gators look to continue their success.
For Florida, that success starts in the pitching circle.
And with the circle comes ace Hannah Rogers.
The senior has 38 complete-game shutouts in her career — including two last weekend against Washington — to tie her with Stephanie Brombacher for the second-most in program history with games still to play. She is Florida’s first four-time All-American — with one first-team selection (2013), two second-team nominations (2011 and 2012) and one third-team nod (2014).
But her performance in the deciding game against Washington is one that Walton will never forget.
“I could see it in her eyes when she was throwing the ball,” Walton said. “I saw something in Hannah (on Sunday) that I hadn’t seen in four years.”
In that final game — through the delays, the waiting and the pressure — Rogers struck out six batters, allowing just one hit and three walks. She needed just 83 pitches to get the win.
“I think it’s more just of a mental game,” Rogers said. “That’s just when you really have to keep your focus and make sure that you’re not letting anything get in the way of you whenever you do have a long delay like that.”
And even with all she’s accomplished, Rogers has one more goal she wants to check off her list: hoisting the NCAA Championship trophy at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.
And if she plays anywhere close to how she did against Washington, Walton won’t be concerned.
“She was impressive. She just one-hit one of the best hitting teams in the country,” Walton said. “I think that’s overshadowed by the score, but she was dynamite.”
• • •
Rogers wasn’t the only Florida player whose performance may have been overshadowed during the Super Regionals.
Lauren Haeger could claim that title as well.
Haeger was Florida’s starting pitcher during its Game 2 loss, but she still had a solid outing. The junior right-hander surrendered six hits and gave up four runs — only three of which were earned — while striking out seven batters and not drawing a walk.
But her contributions in that game went further than the circle. Haeger drove in two of Florida’s three runs when she belted a two-run home run — her team-leading 20th of the season and fourth since NCAA play began — that bounced off the center field scoreboard.
But outside of her homer, the UF offense failed to provide Haeger any wiggle room, with the rest of the team going 1 for 10 at the plate with runners in scoring position and leaving seven runners on base.
“Lauren pitched her butt off (in the first game Sunday),” Walton said, “and we didn’t give her any help.”
Haeger is used to producing at the plate when she’s also in the circle.
The junior leads Florida with a .674 slugging mark this season. However, in the 23 games where she made an appearance in the circle, that number jumps to .764. When looking at just the 15 games where she pitched at least four innings, her slugging mark soars to .843.
“When I pitch a game, I feel like I can help myself more,” Haeger said earlier in the season. “It’s just something that I’ve always done. If you hit for yourself, you kind of feel like you can contribute both ways.”
• • •
The Gators are ready. After fighting for more than 11 hours against Washington on Sunday to reach the Women’s College World Series, Florida is prepared for whatever challenges will come its way in Oklahoma City.
The first one is Baylor.
The fifth-seeded Gators (50-12) square off against the No. 13 seed Bears (47-14) today at noon to begin the final leg of their journey.
Baylor pulled off an upset to advance to its third Women’s College World Series appearance, sweeping No. 4 seed Georgia by a combined 15-4 in Athens, Ga.
But regardless of the opponents, regardless of the situation, the Gators are ready to play in Oklahoma City — and they know they should be there.
“It is an expectation,” Walton said. “I think ultimately we’ve created that.”
Follow Jordan McPherson on Twitter @J_McPherson1126
Tim Walton studies the field during Florida’s 11-1 win against USF on May 18, 2013, at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium. Walton and the Gators open play in the Women's College World Series against Baylor at noon.