NCAA softball Super Regionals review and preview: Florida is the SEC's last hope for the WCWS
Twelve of the 13 SEC programs that field a softball team (Vanderbilt does not) made it to the NCAA Tournament this season. It was an apparent sign that the league had caught up with and maybe even passed the others in the sport. Surely there must have been more than a few optimists out there with visions of an All-SEC Women’s College World Series dancing around in their noggin.
But as it turns out, nothing could have been further from the truth.
In fact, if Florida falters on Sunday in a 2 p.m. elimination game at Virginia Tech (on ESPN), the SEC will be completely shut out of the WCWS for the first time in 20 years. And with all but 1 team (South Carolina) qualifying to compete for it, the prospect of not having any team make it to the Big Dance seemed quite impossible.
But here we are.
Florida, by virtue of winning Game 2 Saturday to even their series at 1-1, is the conference’s last hope to carry the banner to Oklahoma City where the WCWS begins on June 2.
Aside from that positive, Saturday was a second straight day of dismal results for the SEC. Let’s recap the misery and then look ahead while wondering whether it’s too soon to count Texas and Oklahoma as SEC schools.
Texas 3, Arkansas 0 (Arkansas eliminated)
The Razorbacks had been shut out just twice in 59 previous games this season. Texas pitcher Sophia Simpson had not thrown a shutout all year. And that’s why they play the game. Simpson scattered 5 hits in a complete-game effort. The freshman improved to 8-4, sending the Longhorns to their 6th WCWS and first since 2013. With 17 straight postseason appearances, Texas looks for its first WCWS championship.
A team that led the Big 12 in errors, the Longhorns made no miscues over the final 2 games of the best-of-three series to rally from a 1-0 series deficit and shock a Razorbacks team that had not lost a series, nor back-to-back games all season.
There was plenty of drama all the way to the end, with the Longhorns breaking a 0-0 tie with a 3-run 6th inning of the deciding game.
Arkansas had its chances and with 2 runners on and 2 outs in the bottom of the 7th inning. Texas transfer Taylor Ellsworth represented the tying run at the plate for Arkansas. But fate had a different plan. Instead of tying the game, her long fly ball to left field was caught at the fence for the final out of the game and Arkansas’ historic season.
Game 1: Va. Tech 6, Florida 0; Game 2: Florida 7, Va. Tech 2
Virginia Tech opened the day by completing its 6-0 victory. It took Florida until the 3rd inning of the 2nd game on Saturday to score their initial run of the series. It was patented Florida softball. Kendra Falby started the inning using her speed to beat out a bunt. Hannah Adams slapped a double, and Charla Echols reached on an error, again with her speed causing problems.
They used a squeeze bunt to produce a run, and scored on a fielder’s choice in a 4-run 5th inning with pinch-runner Christina Wellen using her speed to beat the throw home on a routine grounder with the infield in. That was more like what we’ve seen from the Gators this season, and both Echols and Skylar Wallace delivered clutch back-to-back doubles in the pivotal frame to propel the Gators to a 7-2 win and force a deciding game on Sunday.
Florida batters were anxious on Friday and that continued through the first 3 innings on Saturday. The Gators were constantly out in front of the offerings from Virginia Tech pitcher Keely Rochard, who started the game on Friday and returned to the circle Saturday morning to retire all 9 batters she faced and complete a 6-0 4-hit shutout.
Arizona 7, Mississippi State 1 (MSU eliminated)
Arizona joins Texas in advancing to the Women’s College World Series as an unranked team. They were 2 of the record-tying 5 unranked teams to make the Super Regionals. They become the 10th and 11th unseeded teams in history to advance to the WCWS.
The Wildcats scored all 7 runs in the 4th inning, erasing the Bulldogs’ 1-0 lead. Mississippi State managed just 5 hits, all singles, and grounded into 3 double plays. The Bulldogs were just 2-for-13 with runners on base, and 3 errors enabled Arizona to score 5 unearned runs and end the Bulldogs’ season.
So that leaves Florida.
The Gators are the SEC’s final hope at placing a team in the WCWS. Here’s a look at that game in Blacksburg.
No. 14 Florida at No. 3 Virginia Tech (elimination game)
The Gators appeared to awaken from their slumber in the later innings Saturday, getting back to what they do best: small ball, solid fielding and good pitching.
The Gators totaled 10 hits in the win. It was the 4th time in 5 postseason games that they produced 10 or more hits. It also ties the program record for most hits in a Super Regional game.
Now they must carry that over to Sunday and turn back a Virginia Tech team that is hosting a Super Regional for the first time. The Hokies are trying to get back to the Women’s College World Series for just the 2nd time and first since 2008.
A win on Sunday would put Florida in the WCWS for the 11th time. The Gators can get there if they can use their speed around the bases. Falby’s steal of second in the 6th inning of the nightcap on Saturday set the program’s single-season stolen base record at 130. It was Falby’s 36th swipe of the season. Wallace leads the team with 50 steals.
Florida cover photo via Twitter @GatorsSB.