The clock finally struck midnight for the Florida Gators Friday.
The Gators (42-9, 19-5) broke hearts at the last minute time and time again throughout their final stretch of the season, but they couldn’t pull off a comeback against Alabama in the SEC Championship, mustering up just three hits and no runs in the 4-0 loss.
In the years of Hannah Rogers, Jackie Traina, and Lauren Haegar, Alabama and Florida softball games represented a battle of the elites and produced stellar games between legends.
In front of a rowdy hosting crowd in Tuscaloosa, the Alabama Crimson Tide (45-7,18-6) immediately got on the board in this year’s rendition of the rivalry. Alexis Mack singled on the first pitch, and starter Elizabeth Hightower hit SEC Player of the Year Bailey Hemphill with a pitch. Soon, a Jenna Johnson single brought Mack home to open up the scoring.
Disruption of the Gator defense brought two more runners in. An errant throw to second base from third baseman Charla Echols and a cat-and-mouse distraction from KB Sides meant Hemphill and Johnson ran in for two unearned runs for the third-ranked Tide.
The Gators attempted to rebound in the reverse of the inning. Echols and designated player Kendyl Lindaman coupled a pair of singles to set up senior Jaimie Hoover with a chance to tie the championship game.
Hoover struck out, a theme Gators found all too familiar the rest of the afternoon
The SEC Co-Pitcher of the Year Montana Fouts played phenomenally. Approximately 70% of Fouts’ pitches were strikes, helping to carry her through the Gator lineup. The junior walked Echols and hit Goddard with a pitch, but surrendered no other easy bases. Echols, Lindaman and Sarah Longley accounted for the only three Gators hits.
Fouts also ended First Team All-SEC second baseman Hannah Adams’ on-base streak at 35 games, the first time since March 6th Adams hasn’t stood safely on a bag.
The Gators simply struggled to get on base before amassing two outs.
The score remained 3-0 with minimal threat of variation until the sixth inning.
Katie Chronister entered the game for Hightower in the fifth inning and garnered an important strikeout while allowing one RBI in the sixth.
Following Chronister’s strikeout of the Tide’s ninth hitter, the Gators still had a glimmer of hope and looked to surmount mighty Alabama.
They knew the blueprint. Amanda Lorenz hit a two-RBI double in the sixth inning for the Gators to win the last SEC Championship against Alabama in 2019.
The brightest sparks of the Gator team this day were up to bat: Echols and Lindaman.
Echols popped out high into the sky. Lindaman struck out looking.
Jaimie Hoover could’ve gotten something started, but she struck out swinging.
The seventh inning would be just as brief and disheartening for the Gators. Fouts threw the final nail in the heavily piled strikeout coffin, and Florida’s hopes of a third straight SEC title went up in smoke.
The Gators will now look ahead to the NCAA Tournament. The squad does get some good news after the tough loss, as catcher Julia Cottrill, who sat out the past three games with an illness, will return for the tournament.
“Our regional’s gonna be tough, I know it, I can already sense it,” Walton said after last Sunday’s game against Texas A&M. "I hope we can continue to get better.”
The Gators learn their fate in the NCAA Tournament via the Selection Show, broadcast on ESPN2 at 9 p.m. Sunday.
Florida, set to earn a regional hosting spot, would likely kick off the action at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium on Friday, May 21st.
Contact Julianna Reichenbach at JReichenbach@alligator.org and follow her on Twitter @Julianna_Reich