Natalie Lugo

Natalie Lugo

For seven months, all of college softball’s eyes have been on the Gators. What would they do without an All-American in the circle? How could a winning program revamp its style of play and expect to contend at that same elite level as it did before?

In a radio interview before the first pitch was thrown, coach Tim Walton explained that opening night jitters creep up on players no matter who they’re set to face. After seven months of relentless background noise, the Gators would be playing against the Illinois State Redbirds and themselves.

But after tonight, Florida’s players can finally relax and focus on just playing ball.

Leading up to the season opener, Walton made it clear that Florida would be taking a different approach this year. The focus would be on dynamic offensive play rather than pitching and strong defense.

However, in their 4-1 win Friday night, the Gators proved they could do both. Against a team that beat USF on Thursday and took Michigan down to the wire earlier today, UF had success on the mound and at bat.

Despite seeming unsure as to who would succeed Kelly Barnhill on the mound for Florida, Walton stuck with starter Natalie Lugo for all seven innings.

The sophomore made 24 appearances and started nine games for the Gators last season. After a rocky start allowing one run early on after a pair of doubles in the first inning to put Illinois State up 1-0, Lugo produced nine strikeouts and allowed only three hits in the proceeding six innings.

After a runless first inning for Florida, junior Hannah Adams delivered a clutch hit by pitch RBI to tie the game at 1-1. Next at bat was senior Kendyl Lindaman, whose walk allowed senior Jade Caraway to score. 2-1, Gators.

But it was Michigan State transfer Charla Echols who led the offensive charge for Florida. In her orange and blue debut, the sophomore third baseman notched a double that allowed Adams and shortstop Sophia Reynoso to run home for the Gators.

Tomorrow, Florida faces Fresno State and No. 17 Michigan at USF Softball Stadium. After their late night performance against the Redbirds, the Gators aim to carry the momentum through the rest of the weekend.

Follow Payton on Twitter @petitus25 and contact her at [email protected]

Payton Titus is a sports writer covering softball this season. She has also written for Swimming World Magazine, Inside the Gators and Chomp Talk.