GatorZone.com Senior Writer
This is the time of year they play for. The moment they know can top all others if everything comes together to make magic.
Pitching. Hitting. Defense. A lucky bounce here and there thanks to head coach Tim Walton’s favorite new orange polo.
The Gators softball team is playing in its fourth consecutive Women’s College World Series, opening Thursday night (9:30/ESPN2) against Missouri. Before we move on, let’s say that one more time: The Gators softball team is playing in its fourth consecutive Women’s College World Series.
That’s no run-of-the-mill footnote.
Prior to the 2011 Gators, no SEC school had qualified for four consecutive trips to the WCWS. But these Gators are not your typical team. This senior class is anything but ordinary.
Consider what the five seniors experienced as freshmen. They were part of a team that went 67-3 prior to Florida’s first visit to Oklahoma City in 2008. Once they arrived at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, the Gators opened with a surprising loss to Lafayette-Louisiana.
From there they won three consecutive games before being eliminating, finishing in a tie for third and an NCAA-record 70 wins.
As sophomores, Kelsey Bruder, Stephanie Brombacher, Tiffany DeFelice, Aja Paculba and Megan Bush contributed to a UF team that made it all the way to the championship round of the WCWS, losing a best-of-three series to Washington for the national title.
And as juniors, they returned to Oklahoma City only to suffer a first-round loss to UCLA, finishing fifth.
They hope this year is finally their year.
“It’s great to be there, but now we’re not the underdog as much,’’ Bruder said. “Before, we probably weren’t supposed to do as well as we did our freshman year.
“The fourth straight time, we’re there to stay now.’’
There to stay.
That is the mindset the Gators took with them out West after sweeping Oregon in the Gainesville Super Regional last weekend.
It won’t be easy for the No. 4-seed Gators, who face Missouri’s Chelsea Thomas in the opening game. Thomas watched while sitting atop a bucket in last year’s WCWS, unable to pitch because of an arm injury.
She could only watch as the Gators beat the Tigers 5-0 in the second round, ending Missouri’s season and keeping Florida’s alive for one more game.
On Wednesday afternoon Walton and Bruder shared a podium with Thomas and Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine during a WCWS press conference.
Walton isn’t underestimating the challenge ahead if the Gators plan to hang around long.
“The key to winning the World Series is winning Game 1,’’ said Walton, who wore the same orange Gator polo for good luck in the Oregon series. “You’ve got to go out there and play a great first game. We’ve got a touch matchup, we know that.’’
Thomas is the primary reason why.
“The kid [Thomas] calling the pitches on the bucket last year has a 0.83 ERA and is striking out a million kids,’’ Walton said. “I think she comes into the game and really changes the complexion in what you have to prepare for.”
The matchup is a classic power vs. power battle, Thomas’ blazing fastball against Florida’s dangerous lineup. The Gators led the nation with 110 home runs, 21 more than any other team in the eight-team field.
To put the Gators’ big bats in perspective, they hit twice as many home runs as three schools in the WCWS: Oklahoma State (47), Baylor (43) and Cal (33).
The long ball has long defined Walton’s program, and the Gators have worked hard this season to add another dimension to their lineup, most notably leadoff hitter Michelle Moultrie’s speed and versatility. Moultrie hit just two of the Gators’ 110 homers but stroked a team-high 88 hits on the way to a .431 batting average.
She does so many of the little things that a team must do to win in the postseason.
And of course, Brombacher and freshman Hannah Rogers must get the job done on the mound consistently for Florida to return home with its first national title trophy.
“We’re a complete team. We’ve got good balance,’’ Walton said. “I haven’t coached a team that played this well defensively. You’ve got a lot of great plays out there.
“It’s fun to watch. We’re just playing solid, very heady softball.’’
The path to Florida’s fourth consecutive trip to Oklahoma City wasn’t always a smooth one. The Gators lost six consecutive games during one stretch, getting swept at home by Georgia and on the road at Kentucky.
The experience seemed to wake them up. The Gators are 22-3 since and have outscored their opponents 41-9 in six NCAA Tournament games.
“It was hard. A couple of us lost faith for a couple of weeks and we didn’t know what was going on,’’ Bruder said. “It was a bit of a shock for us. But we had a team meeting as soon as we got back from Kentucky and just completely turned it around.’’
The turnaround got them all the way back to the WCWS. Now it’s time to find out if the Gators are there to stay.