The fourth-seeded Florida Gators softball team now faces two must-win games in their Super Regional against the Georgia Bulldogs to secure an Oklahoma City Women’s College World Series bid.
In the first of a three-game series Friday, the Bulldogs (33-21) bit the Gators (45-10) for a 4-0 victory to move Florida within a loss of elimination.
While Elizabeth Hightower typically opens weekends for Florida and pitched her first no-hitter against South Florida Sunday, senior starter Natalie Lugo began the day for the Gators and allowed six hits through 6.1 innings. The senior dominated the top of the Georgia lineup, as none of the first five players in Georgia’s lineup recorded a hit.
The 6-7-8-9 in the lineup, however, gave the Gators trouble. Jaiden Fields, the seventh hitter in the Bulldogs lineup, broke Lugo’s no-hitter in the third inning as she sent the ball flying over the centerfield wall. Fields starred Friday for the Georgia Bulldogs, going 3-3 from the plate.
With the game still 1-0 entering the seventh, Payton Bordeau put the game on ice for the Bulldogs with a three-run homer to seal the lead.
“They're a great hitting team,” Lugo said. “We lost the game, but we didn't lose series. We have two more games.”
Gator Sophomore Riley Trlicek briefly entered the game. It was the 2020 SoftballAmerica.com Freshman Pitcher of the Year’s first appearance since May 1 against Missouri. Trlicek quickly carried out her relief role, stimulating a double play to end the top of the seventh.
Florida’s offense made several attempts to start the comeback. Senior first baseman Kendyl Lindaman doubled in the fourth and center fielder Cheyenne Lindsey added a single in the fifth.
Georgia’s starter, Mary Wilson Avant, never gave the Gators an inch. Avant threw 102 pitches for the Bulldogs, striking out nine hitters and walking two. UF head coach Tim Walton complimented her changeup pitch and the tightness of her balls’ spin after the game.
In the sixth inning, the comeback magic almost came alive. Echols hit a powerful, low drive that could have lit the spark, but Georgia shortstop Ellie Armistead made the lightning-quick catch. Lindaman followed up with her second double, an almost game-changing play, but a ground out a batter later ended the inning unceremoniously.
The Gators entered the bottom of the seventh in need of a miracle. They were down four runs and far from the top of their order. Though pinch hitter Jordan Matthews fired off many foul balls to keep the game alive, the bottom of Florida’s lineup couldn’t muster up a hit.
Georgia celebrated rather calmly given the upset, and the Gators came together on the field.
The Gators aren’t strangers to being down 1-0 in a series. They did so several times throughout 2021 and still have yet to lose a series. Recent history stands on the Gators side against the Bulldogs as well. After they lost 4-2 to Georgia on April 3, they came blistering back for 8-1 and 17-1 victories the following two games.
“I don't think our team’s down at all,” Lindaman said after the game. “We haven't lost the series. We know we had our off day. We know we can be a lot better, so it's just coming back together as a team tomorrow, and just putting our best effort out there.”
Having advanced to the WCWS in 2019, the veteran Lindaman supplied advice for her team moving forward.
“The biggest thing is don't make the moment bigger than it is,” Lindaman said. “Excitement can be there, but the nerves, once the first pitches thrown, you kind of have to just get those out of you and start playing the game that we know that we can always play.”
Walton knows his team needs more with their backs against the wall. In terms of adjustments, Walton said the team can work on timing, properly getting their feet down, and selecting a better choice of pitches.
“I told our hitters the same thing, we got to do a better job coaching here, we got to do a better job overnight, making an adjustment to get ready for tomorrow,” Walton said. “They did a better job for sure, 100%.”
Walton’s message for his team to take home was not to place blame on anybody.
“We didn’t swing the bat well. The energy was great,” Walton said. “The crowd was great, the way they came out ready to play today and ready to cheer us on.”
There were 1,821 fans in attendance at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium, one of the first games with no capacity restrictions in 2021.
Florida resumes play against Georgia Saturday at noon. The must-win game for the Gators to stay alive begins Saturday at noon, broadcast live on ESPN2.