GatorZone.com Senior Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The season ended at the NCAA Women’s College World Series. That alone is a statement of stunning achievement for this Florida softball team.
“If you had asked me at the beginning of the season, ‘Could this team do this?’ my answer would have been no, ” Coach Tim Walton said Sunday. “Very early, very easy.”
His remarks came after a 3-0 elimination-game loss to Texas on a gorgeous day at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium. Longhorns ace Blaire Luna threw a one-hit complete-game masterpiece, striking out 14 and handing the Gators their first shutout of the season. UF looked absolutely befuddled at the plate, which proved something of a theme for this trip to collegiate softball's showcase event.
In three games, including the epic 9-8 defeat of Nebraska the night before that marked the longest WCWS game in 14 years, the Gators combined to hit .165 and struck out 39 times.
This from a team that hit .285 during the regular season (including .251 against its rugged Southeastern Conference opponents) and brought a .305 collective average in eight postseason games (SEC Tournament, plus five NCAA games) to the Sooner State.
Here, the Gators went 18-for-109 and managed just five hits in their two losses.
“You’re facing All Americans almost every game,” senior Kelsey Horton said.
Florida’s three opponents faced Hannah Rogers, a first-team All-American, and knocked her around for 12 runs. Teams that come to the World Series better bring the best of what they’ve got (including their bats) and the Gators just didn’t do that.
Horton, a .277 hitter coming in, went 0-for-9 with six strikeouts. Lauren Haeger came in at .335 with 18 homers and 70 RBI. She went 1-for-12 and failed to knock in a run. Kirsti Merritt ranked fourth on the squad at .297 and had 18 extra base hits before OKC. She went 1-for-12, also. And Taylor Schwarz, another .277 hitter with some power and 37 RBI as a freshman, went 2-for-13 with seven strikeouts.
Those four players, like everyone on the Florida team, had their special moments during a year when every Gator, it seemed, stepped up at some crucial time. Collective, that quartet went 4-for-46 (or .086) and proved to be a microcosm of UF’s across-the-board hitting woes, which Sunday were compounded by a pitcher in total command a day after being knocked around early by top-ranked Oklahoma.
“I was proud of how I bounced back,” Luna said.
She had the luxury of a few extra hours of recovery time compared to the opposition.
The Texas defeat the day before was a mercy-rule loss that lasted one hour, 40 minutes and ended at 4:01 p.m.
The Gators arrived at the stadium Sunday less than 12 hours after playing a 5-hour, 20-minute marathon against the Huskers that ended at 11:24 p.m. In that game, UF scratched out 14 hits and needed every one of them for a breathtaking one-run win that, no doubt, took a physical and emotional toll on the team.
Texas knew that much.
“Although we’re empathetic, we had a nice setup with the game time,” Longhorns coach Connie Clark said of the noon start (local time). “Sometimes you get that, sometimes you don’t.”
Count the Gators among the former. No one in orange and blue, though, used the turnaround (or lack thereof) as an excuse.
“We came out with a lot of energy,” Rogers said. “More than I expected.”
“I wasn’t tired,” Haeger said. “We were all just ready to go.”
Their bats weren’t, but Walton didn’t fault fatigue as much as he credited the Longhorn in the circle.
“I don’t think [rest] had anything to do with today’s performance,” Walton said. “I think Blaire Luna had everything to do with today’s performance.”
At one point, Luna recorded 10 straight outs -- from the second to the fifth inning -- by fanning Gators.
“She had a really good back-door curveball that was getting the corner,” Haeger said. “The umpire was calling it, so the whole game was consistent. We needed to make adjustments.”
Or couldn’t against an excellent pitcher on top of her game.
“She did a great job of mixing her pitches, throwing strikes and getting us to chase when she needed to get ahead,” Horton said.
The Gators pretty much chased from behind all day, with Kim Bruins' three-run homer in the third providing all the offense Texas (and Luna) would need.
On the post-game podium, Walton was asked about winning 58 games in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season; and the fact he’ll lose only two seniors -- Horton and Ensley Gammel -- off a a team that won the SEC regular season and tournament titles and became the fifth in UF history to reach the World Series.
He was asked about his excitement for next year.
“I’m not excited about next year,” Walton said.
That's because, as he explained, he wasn't ready to be.
“This is a great team," Walton continued. "I’m going to take a long time to really admire a lot of the individual and team efforts that this team accomplished.”
It’s June and that statement came from behind a microphone in Oklahoma City. So go ahead and stamp this season as a rousing success.
Early and easy.