NCAA softball Super Regionals: How did Florida get to WCWS? One base at a time ...
Strange, isn’t it, that in a season where the SEC shattered its single-season home run record, the team that went the opposite direction, playing the ultimate game of small ball, ended up being the league’s lone representative at the Women’s College World Series.
The Go-Go Gators (48-17) saved face for the SEC, drubbing Virginia Tech, 12-0, on Sunday in the deciding game of the Super Regionals at Blacksburg. They, alone, out of the 12 SEC teams that made it to the postseason, will carry the flag for the conference into Oklahoma City, June 2-9/10. It will be their 11th trip to the WCWS. They open the double-elimination tournament against Oregon State.
While the media hype centered all year around the mounting home runs that were leaving ballparks with record frequency across the conference this season, 940 in all, the Gators quietly toiled in the shadows with a completely different strategy. A distant last in the SEC in home runs, Florida hit just 35 out of the park as a team during the regular season. Mississippi State’s Mia Davidson — the league’s career home run queen — hit 23 by herself, and Arkansas belted a team-high 109.
But Florida head coach Tim Walton, a veteran of the game in his 17th season that includes 2 WCWS titles (2014-15), knows his talent, understands its potential, and has successfully put together a scrappy bunch that believes in a game plan that led the league during the regular season in just about every small-ball category; and in some instances, it wasn’t even close.
The Gators topped the conference in stolen bases with a single-season program-record 130. Tennessee was 2nd with 88. Skylar Wallace set the program’s individual season mark with 50 steals during the regular season, a mark that led the SEC and ranked 3rd nationally. Kendra Falby stole an additional 35 bases for the Gators.
Florida led the league in sacrifice flies (33), with Georgia’s 18 the next best. The Gators paced the conference in hits (530) and triples (20) as well, fully utilizing their team speed.
Individually, Wallace led the league in on-base percentage (.556) and runs scored (77) in addition to stolen bases, and was 2nd in walks (49). Falby tied for the league lead in hits (81) with Charla Echols tying for the conference best in doubles (15). Cheyenne Lindsay paced the SEC with 8 triples and Sam Roe led the league with 8 sacrifice bunts.
They manufactured runs while other teams aimed for the fences.
In their blowout win on Sunday, the Gators became the only team this season to score in double digits against Virginia Tech, and they did it all in just the first 3 innings to take a commanding 10-0 lead without the benefit of a home run. Oh, they added one in the later innings. Wallace belted her team-leading 8th homer of the season in the 5th inning. It was just the 3rd home run for Florida in 9 postseason games. Wallace hit 2 of those and Roe added the other.
But you can’t win with small-ball without solid defense and great pitching. The Gators had both this season. Not only did they lead the SEC in fielding percentage (.981), chances (1,777), putouts (1,283) and assists (460), they made the fewest errors (34) and were 2nd in the league in turning 28 double plays (South Carolina had 29).
The pitching was superb. The Gators ranked 2nd in the SEC in team ERA (2.39) behind only Alabama (2.28).
Rylee Trlicek, 2nd in the conference in relief appearances (21) posted a league-low 1.75 ERA, and Natalie Lugo (2.05) and Lexie Delbrey (2.25) were among the SEC’s best. Lugo and Trlicek tied for 2nd in the league with 4 saves apiece, helping the team to a conference-best 11 saves overall.
Opposing batters hit just .207 during the regular season, 2nd to Tennessee (.206). Delbry ranked 2nd in the conference individually, holding hitters to a .165 average. Lugo (.195) and Elizabeth Hightower (.214) were also among the SEC leaders.
While softballs were leaving the park with regularity, the Florida pitching staff kept it to a minimum, allowing the 2nd-fewest home runs (37) with only Alabama (25) giving up less.
Overall, what the Gators did this season was a drastic change from what the rest of the conference was aiming for. But their way proved to be the best way and now the Gators are 1 of 8 teams headed to Oklahoma City seeking the program’s 3rd national title.
How did they get there? One base at a time.