Following a trouble-free NCAA Regional that saw it cruise to three-consecutive shutout wins, the Gators softball team will enter familiar territory this weekend.
No. 5-seeded Florida (47-15) advanced to its seventh-consecutive NCAA Super Regional last weekend. Gainesville will again serve as host to a best-of-three series at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium beginning this Friday at 7 p.m.
This weekend’s opponent is a familiar one for coach Tim Walton and his squad.
SEC rival and No. 12 Tennessee (42-15) will match up against the Gators. The Volunteers, who won the Knoxville Regional, carry with them solid momentum that sets up well for an intriguing clash come Friday.
Though Florida recently topped the SEC with its tournament victory a few weeks ago, it was Tennessee that earned the higher seed (No. 2) entering the tournament because of a stronger regular season.
The Volunteers boast a conference second-best batting average (.307) -- a statistic in which UF sits last -- that helped them plate 22 runs in their four regional games last weekend.
The Tennessee lineup, made up of six .300 hitters, is the greatest threat to Florida’s success this weekend. Infielders Aubrey Leach, Chelsea Seggern and outfielder Haley Bearden lead UT’s production, with the trio accounting for nearly half of the team’s home runs (22).
Tennessee also trekked into Gainesville and defeated the Gators 2-1 in a three-game series back in March, with the Gators only managing one run in the two defeats.
What the Gators lack in offense head-to-head against their conference foe, however, they compensate for in the circle.
The success of Florida’s pitching staff has been well-documented this year and will ultimately serve as the backbone to the team’s performance throughout the remainder of the postseason.
The brilliance of senior Kelly Barnhill (32-11) is no secret, and she will be well-rested to endure several innings of work. The assistance of freshman Elizabeth Hightower, sophomore Natalie Lugo and junior Katie Chronister has resulted in UF producing an SEC-best 1.78 ERA.
History also fares on the side of the Gators this weekend.
UF holds an all-time 19-7 record in Super Regional play and has advanced to the Women’s College World Series nine of the last 11 years. Tennessee, on the contrary, last advanced in 2015.
Three games separate the Gators from their third-consecutive WCWS berth, and a tough challenger awaits. Florida will need to draw on familiarity this deep in the postseason to overcome the Volunteers.
Follow Jack Braverman on Twitter @jack_braverman. Contact him at [email protected].