Florida softball navigated uncharted waters Wednesday night.
The Gators entered extra innings for the first time this season after bitter rival Florida State deadlocked the grudge match at two at the top of the sixth inning. Both teams struggled to find momentum as the game slowly turned into a three-hour thriller.
Unfortunately for the Orange and Blue, the Seminoles found a guiding light in the top of the 10th inning.
FSU third baseman Sydney Sherrill destroyed the first offering from pitcher Natalie Lugo for a monstrous solo home run off the center-field fence. Florida outfielders Cheyenne Lindsey and Kendra Falby could only observe as the softball soared over them.
The No. 7 Gators (30-7, 7-5) failed to respond after hitting three-consecutive groundouts in the bottom of the frame, eventually losing 4-2 to No. 2 Florida State (36-2, 10-2) in the midweek matchup at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.
Despite notching nine hits, Florida left 12 runners on base and saw the leadoff batter reach safely in seven of the 10 innings. Head coach Tim Walton evaluated the Gators’ hitting performance.
“It's the secret to success,” Walton said. “You’ve got to get hits with runners in scoring position to be a good team.”
Florida’s first missed opportunity came in the first inning.
Falby drilled Seminole righty Danielle Watson’s first pitch deep to left field for a leadoff double before reaching the hot corner on a groundout by redshirt junior Skylar Wallace. Echols joined Falby on the bases with a two-out walk, but they were left stranded after freshman Reagan Walsh hit a flyout to FSU catcher Michaela Edenfield.
In the third, the Gators capitalized on a throwing error by Sherrill to take a 1-0 lead.
Falby led off with a hard groundball toward third base, inducing an errant throw by Sherill, and advanced to second on the play thanks to her speed. Falby then crossed the plate after Adams hit an RBI single up the middle with one out.
Echols followed with a single, but an impressive catch by Sherrill at third and a pop-up by Lindsey ended Florida’s threat.
The Seminoles tied the game in the top of the fourth inning thanks to an RBI single by second baseman Devyn Flaherty.
UF pitcher Elizabeth Hightower gave up a leadoff walk to first baseman/pitcher Mack Leonard. Pinch-runner D'Aun Riggs then stole second base and scored after Flaherty hit a line drive up the middle.
Hightower escaped the jam by striking out outfielder Kalei Harding and designated player Hallie Wacaser.
In the fifth frame, the Gators regained the lead.
Wallace led off with a single and a stolen base before Echols brought her home with an RBI single. Florida could have extended its lead when it juiced the bases with two outs, but a full-count groundout by sophomore Avery Goelz frustrated the Gators' offense.
FSU kept it interesting by tying the game the next inning. Leonard led off with a single and reached second on a wild pitch. She scored after Harding hit a single to third base with one out. Hightower stood her ground and retired the next two batters with a groundout and a strikeout.
In the bottom of the sixth, Florida put the leadoff batter on base after outfielder Katie Kistler earned a walk. However, three consecutive groundouts by Falby, Wallace and Adams kept the go-ahead run at bay.
Fifth-year senior Natalie Lugo took the circle in the eighth after a strong performance by Hightower. The Monticello, Florida, native threw 101 pitches in seven innings with seven strikeouts and two walks. It was her fourth start of the season of at least seven innings.
“I was excited,” Hightower said. “I could have gone all night. But, you know, based on things that I've been through this year, it was probably smart (to leave the game).”
Both teams struggled in extra innings. Lugo swiftly retired the Seminoles’ first seven batters by allowing only one single in two innings. FSU relied on Leonard and its most-used pitcher, Kathryn Sandercock, to keep the zeros despite a ninth-inning Florida threat.
In that frame, the Gators had runners in the corners with two outs when Walsh struck out swinging. One inning later, the Seminoles sealed Florida’s fate with Sherrill’s bomb and added an insurance run with a single and a double.
Freshman Haley Pittman entered the game for Lugo but couldn’t stop the damage as pinch-runner Krystina Hartley scored on a long sacrifice fly by Harding. With the loss, the Gators now have dropped the last four of 10, three of them taking place in Gainesville.
And the competition keeps on getting harder.
Florida will face another high-caliber opponent when it hosts the Alabama Crimson Tide Saturday through Monday at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.
Jose Tovar is a fourth-year journalism student at the University of Florida specializing in sports and media. He has covered softball and soccer as a beat writer and aspires to work in the sports media industry.