Women's College World Series: Reviewing the Gators' overachieving season
The Florida Gators’ 11th trip to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City under head coach Tim Walton came to an abrupt end Sunday. The Gators’ bats went silent and team speed therefore negated. Florida was shut out for the second consecutive game, falling 8-0 to UCLA in an elimination game on Sunday, thwarting the Gators’ attempt at a 3rd WCWS title.
It brought to a halt a season that went against the trend. While other teams in the SEC and around the country were setting home run records, the Gators instead used their speed, pitching and defense to earn their way to the WCWS. They were the only team from the SEC to do so.
Though last in the SEC in home runs with a team total of 37, the Gators led the conference in categories that sparked their successful small ball run to 49 wins (49-19). They led the conference in team fielding percentage as well as double plays (31), hits (561), triples (21), sacrifice flies (35), stolen bases (132), saves (11) and 2nd in team ERA (2.39).
Let’s recap a sensational season that was …
Individual achievements this season
Individually, 4 regulars hit .350-or-better. Kendra Falby (.386) and senior Hannah Adams (.365) were the table setters at the top of the order, and Skylar Wallace (.380) and Katie Kistler (.350) followed up.
Wallace, a transfer from Alabama, led the SEC in on-base percentage (.535), runs scored (79) and stolen bases (56). Falby paced the conference in hits (85), and senior Cheyenne Lindsey had the most triples (8) in the SEC.
Contributing to the Gators’ patented small-ball play, Sam Roe led the conference with 9 sacrifice bunts, and Charla Echols was the SEC’s best with 10 sacrifice flies.
In the circle, Elizabeth Hightower (17-9, 2.42 ERA) and Lexie Delbrey (15-4, 2.26 ERA) were solid starters and the Gators had perhaps the best bullpen in the conference with senior Natalie Lugo (2.15) and Rylee Trlicek (1.69) converting 4 saves apiece.
Incredibly, with home runs flying out of ballparks with more regularity than ever before, Trlicek threw 41 innings this season without giving up a single home run.
There were a couple of measurable turning points in the Gators’ season. The first came on May 1 in Baton Rouge. In the deciding game of a 3-game series with LSU, and having just been swept in 3 games at home by Arkansas, the Gators were looking for a hero to turn things around. Lindsey answered the call, belting 1 of her 4 home runs on the season, breaking a 1-1 tie in the top of the 9th inning to lift the Gators to a much-needed 2-1 win.
It was a huge momentum boost and also happened to be Walton’s 1,000th win in his coaching career.
The next turning point in Florida’s season was the return of Adams at second base. The 2022 Rawlings Gold Glove Award Winner injured her hand on April 15 and missed the rest of the regular season. The Gators were 32-9 before the injury and looking like the team to beat in the SEC.
But without their sparkplug at second base, the Gators went just 9-6 in her absence, limping into the SEC Tournament. However, Adams’ return lifted the team and Florida returned to form, winning 7 of its next 9 games, winning their way to the Women’s College World Series.
Overall a successful season
It was a highly successful season. Yes, it was disappointing finish of course, but a season in which the Gators rose to the top of the SEC when it counted and won a Super Regional as the visitor for the first time. Sure, you’d like to see the Gators put together more offense on the biggest stages. Over the past 2 seasons, from the Super Regionals on to the WCWS, the Gators were shut out 5 times in 8 games.
That head-scratching statistic aside, there’s no denying that this overachieving Gators squad, which finished 5th in the SEC standings, was fun to watch. They brought the level of play back to where the Gators are accustomed to. Their 7-1 win over Oregon State in this year’s opener marked the first victory for Florida at the WCWS since 2018.
And it’s a bit too early to completely turn the page, but the Gators are set to return 3 of their top 6 hitters — Falby, Wallace and Kistler — and could get back 2 more who could take advantage of a COVID year.
They’ll miss Lugo in the circle but return Trlicek and Delbrey and perhaps Hightower if she also decides to take advantage of a COVID year.