GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When his team went to Orlando in late March for a mid-week date against UCF, Coach Tim Walton watched the home team jump on his ace pitcher for two runs in the first and play well enough that it took a seven-run fourth inning for the Gators, then ranked fourth in the nation, to seal a 10-6 win.
That was the game Walton had in mind while filling out the lineup card in advance of Sunday’s NCAA Regional championship-bracket showdown against the Knights. UF, Walton figured, needed to score runs.
The strategy worked. The fifth-seeded Gators rapped eight hits, including a two-run, tone-setting rocket from junior Lauren Haeger in the top of the first, on their way to a 7-0 victory that moved UF (48-11) into next weekend’s Super Regional round.
“They swing the bat very well,” Walton said of the Knights. “We were trying to figure out a way to get as many runs as possible. I guess you could call that our offensive lineup out there today.”
Which begs a question: If that was the “offensive lineup,” which is the defensive one?
The one with freshman Delanie Gourley in the circle? She threw a no-hitter Friday night in an 8-0 win over Florida A&M. Or the one with senior All-American Hannah Rogers spinning the ball. She gave up just three hits in a 14-0 rout Saturday against Stetson. Maybe it's the one behind Haeger, who not only knocked in nine runs and crushed homers in each regional game, but hurled a complete-game shutout at UCF.
Make that three NCAA wins by a 29-0 count. In fact, UF pulled off a double-whammy the first NCAA weekend by raising its collective batting average while also lowering its team ERA.
Washington won’t be.
The Huskies (36-13), one of the marquee programs in the nation, are next up in Super Regional play. They won their three games -- beating Iona, Brigham Young and Northwestern -- by an aggregate count of 26-0.
Should make for some great high-stakes softball next weekend, but in the interim Walton will have to figure out not only what offensive lineup he’ll trot out against UW, but how he’ll sort the options on his pitching staff.
Going into the year, Walton and pitching coach Jennifer Rocha couldn’t wait to see what they’d get out of the Rogers-Haeger-Gourley three-headed monster. He liked what he saw initially, as the Gators opened the season with 22 straight victories, but the wealth of arms worked against them in a way, as well.
“I don’t think we were able to give them enough quality innings in enough back-to-back games,” said Walton, whose staff got some doses of reality once the rugged Southeastern Conference season began. “In this kind of setting, playing head-to-head with three different opponents, it’s a huge, huge advantage not only to have three pitchers, but three quality pitchers.”
The Super Regional, though, is a best-of-three series against one outstanding team.
Walton and Rocha must choose wisely.
The UF players are good with whoever.
“I like having the different pitchers,” sophomore centerfielder Kirsti Merritt said. “Delanie has the change-up, Hannah a dropball and Lauren [is] coming out there with the hard screwballs and stuff.”
The totality of that trio was plenty good for a lopsided blitz through a field of next-tier teams from around the state of Florida. In fact, here’s what UCF coach Renee Luers-Gillispie had to say when about the Gators’ pitching staff after her squad's very successful season ended with a 43-18 mark.
“It’s not so much the pitching we were worried about,” she said. “It’s definitely the hitting we were worried about. One through nine in their lineup is very tough for our pitchers to go through.”
That’s what an “offensive lineup” can do.
But there’s more to the Gators than their bats. Time to find how much more.
“It’s good that we have so much depth in our pitching staff,” Haeger said after improving to 10-2 and lowing her ERA to a team-best 1.57. “Delanie came out and set the tone. Hannah, same thing. Lights out. I was like, ‘They did it, so I can do it too.‘ I just wanted to make my pitches and go out there and fight for my team.”
It’ll likely be pitching that determines if Florida’s season extends beyond next week and moves on to Oklahoma City.
But what pitchers?
“Not sure yet,” said Walton, who probably does know but isn’t going to say (and shouldn’t). “The key is I’ve got three options and if [No.] 1 is not working, we’ll pull the trigger and go to No. 2. Right away, if need be.”