GatorZone.com Senior Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY – Their season ended exactly where they hoped it would when they grabbed their gloves and took the field five months ago for the start of practice.
The Women’s College World Series has found a home here at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, and on Tuesday night, the Florida Gators tried to extend their stay for another day.
Arizona State freshman pitcher Dallas Escobedo prevented that, showing once again why she was named Co-Tournament MVP with Gators center fielder Michelle Moultrie.
The Gators have been regular guests at the WCWS the last four seasons, the first team in SEC history to be able to say that. They have won big games and created memories that will last a lifetime.
Florida coach Tim Walton said that is what he is going to remember more than Florida’s 7-2 loss to Arizona State on Tuesday. Coupled with Monday’s 14-4 loss, the Gators’ quest for their first national title came up empty on a muggy Oklahoma night.
“We’ve only lost 33 games in four years. That needs to be written about instead of you can’t win the national championship,’’ Walton said. “This team only lost 33 games in four years – that’s one heck of a program and one heck of a class, arguably one of the best in NCAA history.
“The only thing they didn’t win was the big one. I’m very proud of what these kids have done and how much they have sacrificed to get where they’re at.’’
Walton and the Gators talked about the obvious following Tuesday’s loss. In the two games against the Sun Devils in the championship series, the Gators were outplayed, outpitched and outhit. The Sun Devils earned the title.
Escobedo was stellar in each outing, limiting the Gators to four hits and two runs over seven innings and winning her 19th consecutive decision Tuesday. She became the first freshman pitcher to win the title-clinching game in 22 years.
“Sometimes you lose games and you go, ‘wish we would have done this, wish we would have done that,’ ’’ Walton said. “Ultimately, that was the better team that won.’’
The Gators scored first Tuesday because of Moultrie, who had one of the best WCWS in recent memory. Moultrie seemed to be everywhere during the tournament, including on first after a lead-off single in the bottom of the first against Escobedo. Moultrie came around to score to give Florida the early lead.
From there, the Sun Devils’ powerful lineup chipped away at Gators starter Stephanie Brombacher, one of Florida’s five seniors who finished their careers with a 238-33 record.
Arizona State scored three runs in the second and two in the third, and then the Sun Devils put an exclamation mark on joining UCLA, Arizona and Texas A&M as the only schools to win multiple national titles with Annie Lockwood’s long home run in the sixth.
Once Escobedo struck out senior Kelsey Bruder for the final out, the Gators’ heart-thumping run through the postseason was officially over. The Sun Devils raced onto the field to mob Escobedo.
Bruder slowly walked back toward the Gators’ dugout, greeted with hugs from Walton and her teammates.
Bruder drips intensity. She dreamed of taking part in a victory celebration like the one the Sun Devils were participating in. Instead, it was time for reflection for the California native who decided to move cross country to attend college and help build Florida’s program into one of the nation’s most successful.
“Obviously, losing again here is heartbreaking, but I’m definitely proud of what we’ve achieved over the last four years and this team in particular,’’ Bruder said. “I think they’ve probably been the best four years of my life. I’m very blessed to be a Gator.”
Shortly after the final start of her college career – and perhaps her last time pitching to catcher Tiffany DeFelice, her catcher at American Heritage High and at UF the past four years – Brombacher was obviously saddened at the realization that her career was over.
An arm injury limited her effectiveness for much of the second half of the season. Still, she pitched, her goal the same as always – win a national title.
But on Tuesday, Brombacher was forced to watch the Sun Devils celebrate.
“No one wants to end their career with a loss. It’s tough to swallow,’’ an emotional Brombacher said. “But like I said, I’m so proud of my teammates. I’m sad my career is over, but this program is going to do big things.
“We’ve been here twice now, and next time we’re going to get it.’’
If the Gators do make it back to Oklahoma City next season, players like Moultrie and right fielder Brittany Schutte and freshman shortstop Cheyenne Coyle and freshman hurler Hannah Rogers will lead the way. They are the future.
But Tuesday night was more about the past.
The Gators had tears in their eyes as Arizona State accepted the national championship trophy, but over the past four years, they have mostly smiled. The senior class of Bruder, Brombacher, DeFelice, second baseman Aja Paculba and first baseman Megan Bush will be difficult to match.
“This team, the one thing you could always say with this four-year period is their determination, their fight, never down and never out – always had a chance,’’ Walton said. “I still felt like we had a chance in this game to win just because they’ve proven they can win.
“They are winners.’’
Yes, they were losers for the 33rd time of their careers on Tuesday, but Walton is right, this group of Gators won like no other, including an NCAA-record 70 wins in 2008 when they were freshmen.
You could never count them out. They didn’t win the big one, but they won enough to create a legacy unmatched in SEC softball history.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a team work harder, fight harder, have more passion for the game than us,’’ Bruder said. “I just feel lucky to be a part of this team. It was a great experience.’’
An experience that ended Tuesday exactly where they wanted it to: Oklahoma City and the WCWS. But instead of a celebration party back at the team hotel, the Gators gathered in the hotel lobby after leaving the stadium – most of the players still in uniform – and shared pizza and stories with their families.
A television screen showed replays of Arizona State’s celebration.
They hope next season ends in exactly the same place. Maybe next time they can watch replays of them celebrating.