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Lauren Haeger, Delanie Gourley and Hannah Rogers combined to defeat Alabama in Game 2.

Wednesday June 4, 2014Championship Call: Walton, Gators Knew Decision Was Right One

Lauren Haeger, Delanie Gourley and Hannah Rogers combined to defeat Alabama in Game 2.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

VIDEO: Gators coach Tim Walton and players after Tuesday's historic win.

OKLAHOMA CITY -- In explaining himself late Tuesday night, Florida softball coach Tim Walton described his decision not to start pitching ace Hannah Rogers with a chance to close out the Women’s College World Series as both “gutsy and bold.”

UF fans weighing in via Twitter about four hours earlier -- and surely many more watching from their homes on ESPN -- used some far more cutting adjectives to describe Walton’s choice to go with Lauren Haeger over Rogers, the flame-thrower who had held opponents scoreless in all but one of her 42 innings in the NCAA Tournament.

Those couch coaches didn’t have the data or knowledge of the Gators’ personnel like Walton did. Fans who needed justification hopefully got it by seeing Walton and the Gators raising the national championship trophy after a 6-3 defeat of Southeastern Conference rival Crimson Tide to capture the first softball NCAA crown in the program’s 18-year history.

As for vindication, no, Walton didn't need that.

"I know my team," he said.

Hannah Rogers and Aubree MunroRogers (photo, holding trophy) did not start, but she was on the mound, and assisting on the game’s final out, and then at the bottom of the Florida dog pile at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, where the Gators (55-12) finally broke through after falling short in five previous trips, including a pair of sweeps in the championship series.

How sweet it was to finally win it.

How even sweeter to do it his way.

The UF coaching staff obviously knew what they had in Rogers, the first four-time All-American in program history, who was overpowering hitters in the NCAA Tournament to the tune of seven shutouts in eight starts, including a 5-0, four-hit whipping of the Crimson Tide (53-13) only 24 hours earlier.

But what the coaches also knew was Rogers did not fare well when facing a handful of teams, Alabama being one of them, in back-to-back games. Walton saw the Tide turning a little bit late Monday when Bama banged out three hits against Rogers in the seventh inning.

His plan all along was to go with a combination of Haeger -- not a bad option, given her 1.69 ERA for the season -- and roll freshman Delanie Gourley into the mix also, with the idea of having Rogers ready to close the door.

“Back-to-back games against good hitting teams who use video and have smart coaches who make adjustments ... ,” Walton explained after the game. “We decided to give them credit, give them respect and change it up.”

It was a perfect orange and blueprint.

“I thought it was genius,” sophomore catcher Aubree Munro said. “Coach has had Hannah for four years. Who knows how to use her better than he does? We went with the fresh look.”

Alabama wasn’t surprised.

“We had a plan for all three,” Tide infielder Kaila Hunt said.

Alabama coach Patrick Murphy, in fact, praised Walton’s decision.

“I wish it wasn’t such a surprise to everybody, and that's the problem with college softball,” Murphy said. “There are three pitchers on our team. He has three. Let's all use 'em, you know? It's a staff. It's not a one pitcher.”

Actually, Murphy may wake up Wednesday and wonder why he didn’t commit to another pitcher for Game 2. Instead, he opted to let it ride with All-American Jaclyn Traina, who was tattooed for five runs and eight hits in Game 1.

She eventually had her problems in Game 2, but first Gator Nation visited Panic Nation after Haeger surrendered three hits to the first four Alabama batters and fell behind 1-0 after a half-inning.

In the UF dugout, exactly no one was freaking out, including Haeger, who found out the night before that Game 2 was hers. She appreciated the jolt of confidence, given the incredibly high stakes of the moment.

“I just told my team I was going to go as long and as hard as I can,” Haeger said. “I knew I had pitchers behind me who were going to shut everybody down.”

Hitters, too.

The Gators rocked Traina for a four-run second inning, with Kirsti Merritt ripping a three-run homer for a 5-1 UF lead that chased Traina from the game.

Rogers, meanwhile, was sitting in the dugout watching, resting.

Tim Walton

The Tide’s season was on the line, so no one could blame Murphy for going with his star, but it was clear Monday the Gators had a good feel for what Traina was throwing and Stephanie Tofft’s solo homer to left in the first and the four more runs in the second was further proof.

It also made Walton (photo, right) feel even better about his call.

“I know it may not have been the most popular decision among some people, but the reason we didn’t start Hannah was for the [same] reason they did start Jackie,” said Walton, whose team got 12 hits, yet also made an uncharacteristic four errors (after making none in the previous four WCWS games). “We got a bunch of runs off of her after facing her yesterday, and that could have been the same result if we had started Hannah, and I truly believe that.”

Haeger went three innings, gave up five hits and two runs, then gave way to Gourley, who did not give up a hit or run for two innings despite having runners at second and third with no out, and the bases loaded with two out. 

“They kept us prepared all week and told us to be ready to go in any time,” said Gourley, who exited after the fifth inning with a 5-2 lead. “That’s what it comes down to as pitchers. We work as a family.”

Mama got the call in the sixth.

“I trusted Coach,” Rogers said. “I knew he was making the right decision.”

Rogers gave up a run on two hits in her two innings, but she got the save.

Oh, she also got College World Series Most Valuable Player honors.

And all Walton did was make the most valuable, controversial and on-the-money decision of his career.

“I honestly didn’t sleep very well last night. Not that I don’t have trust and faith in Lauren. I do. Delanie as well. But Hannah was just on fire,” Walton said. “But we’ve talked all year that we don’t have a superstar on our team. We have a bunch of players who do their job. [Tonight] was a tribute to that.” 

A championship-worthy tribute.

Great call, coach.


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