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Sunday, January 17, 2021
<p>Natalie Lugo</p>

Natalie Lugo

A labyrinth is a meandering, but meaningful, maze designed to test the navigators and push them to their limits. The schedule this weekend will do just that for the Gators.

Florida (12-1) flew to Palm Springs, California, for the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic early Thursday morning. It will spend its weekend in the softball equivalent of a labyrinth, slated to face four top-25 teams including No. 1 UCLA (11-0) and No. 5 Arizona (9-1).

The weekend begins with two games today against Arizona and No. 25 Northwestern (4-5). On Saturday, Florida plays No. 16 Arizona State (9-2), followed by a matchup against defending national champion UCLA. The weekend will wrap up with UF’s only unranked opponent of the tournament in Nebraska (5-4) on Sunday.

“Designing a schedule the way we design a schedule, I want to see...how we respond to playing the No. 1 team in the country,” coach Tim Walton said about the weekend slate.

Arizona will head into this invitational fresh off its near-victory in exhibition against Team USA Tuesday night, in which designated hitter Jessie Harper hit two home runs in back-to-back innings — one was a three-run homer — to earn the Wildcats all four of their runs. It wasn’t until the Women’s National Team put Monica Abbot in the circle that the red, white and blue clinched the victory.

Step one to successfully navigating the labyrinth is to enter with a calm, cool and collected demeanor. According to junior Natalie Lugo, Florida can check that off its list.

“I think we’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing and hopefully our bats are working the way they’ve been working,” the pitcher said. “If I can’t get the whole game in, then I know I have my pitching staff behind me to pick me up.”

Once the navigator makes his of her way to the center — a feat in and of itself — he or she has a monster to conquer in the center and, if they survive, must still find their way out. This weekend’s journey will offer up the same challenge and opportunity for the Gators. They will venture toward their own center as a program and back out again to take on the remainder of their 2020 schedule.

The monster in the middle is one Florida has seen before, but, according to Walton, it has been ill-equipped to take it on in recent years. The Gators are 7-6 all-time against the Bruins, having lost their last three matchups. UCLA has started its season off with commanding statistics, outscoring opponents 102-13 in the first 11 games.

“They’re No. 1 in the country right now for a reason,” Walton said. “We didn’t play very well against them last year at all. Very talented, very athletic, they’re very confident, they’re very well prepared.”

The first pitch of the weekend for Florida is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. EST against Arizona.

Follow Payton on Twitter @petitus25 and contact her at ptitus@alligator.org.

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Natalie Lugo

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