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Sunday June 2, 2013Marathon Women: Gators Outlast Nebraska in 15 Innings for Thrilling 9-8 Win

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Some numbers.

* 15 innings

* 5 hours, 20 minutes

* 534 pitches

That's one softball game, folks.

But now for the most important numbers as far the Florida Gators were concerned.

9 and 8

As in UF 9, Nebraska 8 in Saturday night's marathon NCAA Women's College World Series win-or-go-home showdown from AFA Hall of Fame Stadium. The Gators survived the longest game in their softball history after blowing a three-run lead in the seventh and a one-run lead in the 10th with one crazy 15th of an inning at the plate and then on defense to close it out.

"We hit a home run, they hit a run ... ," a glossy eyed Florida coach Tim Walton said. "That's about the last thing I remember, to be honest with you."

On a night when 120 Gators and Cornhuskers combined stepped to the plate, who could blame him? All that really mattered was that Florida (58-8), the No. 2 seed in the tournament, had survived in a monumental test of wills and advanced in the loser's bracket to an elimination date Sunday with Texas (50-9).

The Gators will play it roughly 12 1/2 hours after UF's last putout of the Huskers ended the longest CWS game in 19 years.

"Whether we're going to be any good [Sunday] or not, it really doesn't matter," Walton said. "I think with what these guys did tonight, I'll take them to battle any day of the week."

Their thirst for battle is why they'll battle again.

After scoring just two runs through the first 11 winnings of the CWS, the Gators erupted for six in their top half of the fifth, thanks to three hits, a couple walks, three fielder's choices that plated two runs, and an error. Down 2-0 to start the frame, UF jumped to 6-2 lead.

The Cornhuskers (45-16) got one back in the sixth with a solo home run from Hailey Decker, but were down to their last two outs in the seventh against UF ace Hannah Rogers, who surely had two clue she would start a game, work seven innings and eventually have to save it seven innings later.

With the bases loaded in the seventh, one out and a run already in, Brooke Thomason roped a line drive to center field that Kirsti Merritt charged and caught. The runner at third tagged and Merritt's throw to the plate was not in time, but catcher Aubrey Munro tried to throw the first-to-second runner out.

She was safe, too.

UF second baseman Kelsey Stewart, though, fired to third base where Husker Gabby Banda, who had tagged second to third on the fly, suddenly found herself in a run down. UF third baseman Stephanie Tofft chased Banda down mere feet from home plate, slapped a tag on her ... but the ball scooted out of her glove.

Tie game.

"I felt like I let the whole team down," Tofft said.

Little did she know there was still, oh, about two hours of softball to be played.

In the 10th, Brianna Little tagged a solo homer to give the Gators a 7-6 lead and the momentum. That was until Taylor Edwards led off the Huskers' 10th with a solo shot of her own. Nebraska went on to load the bases in the inning, but Lauren Haeger worked out of the jam in relief.

And on it went.

And on.

And on.

Get the idea?

"It was hard, I'm not going to lie to you," Stewart said. "The coaches kept telling us we were the better-conditioned team."

Both looked pretty fit to the standing-room-only crowd that got a trio of fifth-inning stretches on the evening. 

Then came the 15th. Haeger, 0-for-6 on the night, lashed a one-out double down the left field line and Katie Medina reached on an infield single that sent Haeger to third.

With runners on the corners, freshman Taylore Fuller did her job and did it splendidly. She absolutely had to make good contact and force some action. Fuller hit a solid shot at shortstop Alicia Armstong, but the ball kicked off her glove -- Armstrong's third error of the game -- and caromed into right field.

Haeger scored. Medina scored. Fuller was thrown out trying to stretch the play to third base. The Gators, though, led 9-7.

They would need both of those runs.

Nebraska led off the bottom of the 15th with a double from Armstrong, who eventually scored on a fielder's choice. The bases were clear and the Gators needed one more out.

"We practice for so many hours," center fielder Kirsti Merritt said. "This is what we prepare for."

But this kind of game rarely happens, especially here. 

The Huskers weren't going away easiliy, either.

Tatum Edwards drew a two-out walk to put the tying run at first -- and the winning run at the plate. Banda struck a hard shot up the middle, that kissed off Rogers' glove and spun toward the hole between short and third, then out into shallow left field.

Would this game ever end?

"Our team is so heads-up in practice," Rogers said. "We always know where the next play is and we're always working on finishing plays."

Sure enough, charging left fielder Jessica Damico scooped and came up throwing as Edwards trid to take third base. She fired the ball to Tofft, who eight innings earlier had dropped that tag at home.

This time, Tofft not only held onto the ball, but blocked the bag from Edwards for the final play of the game.

"My team had my back," she smiled afterward. "I felt the love."

The Gators felt a lot more than that as the bench emptied.

"One of the most exciting games I've ever coached," Walton said.

To go with one of the longest and most meaningful, too.

A testament to this team.

"It was really just fightng the whole time," Stewart said. "No one gave up. If someone looked tired, 'Let's go,' someone picked them up. I never had a doubt in my mind."


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