OKLAHOMA CITY – No Southeastern Conference team has ever won a Women’s College World Series title. There’s no guarantee one will this season, but with Florida’s 5-2 win against Cal in an elimination game Saturday night, it’s a possibility as an SEC team will be in the championship series.
Which team gets there is the big question now—the rested Alabama Crimson Tide who have breezed through a pair of games in Oklahoma City behind the dazzling arm of senior Kelsi Dunne or the Gators, whose blistering bats have led the nation in home runs and provides one of the country’s top power games?
Whichever team it ends up being, it will have earned its keep.
Florida has to beat Alabama twice on Sunday to have a shot. While it won’t be easy with the way Dunne is pitching and as aggressive as coach Patrick Murphy has been pushing the buttons on this Tide squad, it’s not inconceivable. After all, the Gators took two of three from Alabama in late April, earning a pair of one-run victories after ‘Bama opened the series with a 5-0 win.
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While this stage is much bigger, the series already commands fans to stay in their seats until the end as fireworks are bound to happen before it’s finished.
“’Bama is always an amazing game,” said Florida senior Kelsey Bruder. “It’s been back and forth throughout the years. Kelsi Dunne has gotten us as many times as we’ve gotten her. It always ends in dramatic fashion so I’m really looking forward to [Sunday] and see what both teams bring.”
Dunne isn’t the only part of the Alabama staff the Gators need to worry about.
Freshman Jackie Traina has been spotless in the postseason and recorded saves in each of the Tide’s opening two WCWS wins, setting a series record in the process. That fact, along with the sometimes overshadowed potent hitting ability the Tide possesses, is reason enough for Florida coach Tim Walton to believe it could go either way.
“They’re as good as advertised and they had held that No. 1 ranking for a long time for a reason,” Walton said. “It’s going to be a challenge but the good thing is I’ve got these hitters on my side and this team on my side and they can really get up to play Alabama. And the same thing for them; they’re going to get up to play us.”
Like ’Bama, the Gators have been changing things up, Walton said.
Since a mid-season team meeting, Florida has tried to make the transition from just a power, home run hitting team to a squad that can create more offense in different ways. Using the hit and run, stealing more, bunting and putting on squeezes are more a part of the Gator repertoire in the postseason and has helped improve the overall offensive production.
“We had to find a way to change some things, we tried to be a little bit more dynamic and it’s really paid off,” Walton said. “It’s what got us going, hitting home runs [again].”
Neither team will know what to expect out of the other Sunday, but they do know what’s on the line—for their program and conference as a whole.
Playing through the elimination round is difficult. It’s rarely seen when a team can come back from losing it’s first game and then playing through the losers’ bracket to the championship series. Missouri coach Ehren Earlywine thinks the biggest issues to manage are not physical, but mental. So how did he deal with his Tigers facing league rival Oklahoma in a loser-go-home game?
“Our memories go back to the games at Mizzou. Those were marathon games, 10, 11 innings, win by one run, you’re drained for the next three or four days,” Earlywine said following the victory against the Sooners. “I just wanted to send my team the message that if you can get past this [Oklahoma] game, then you’ve got Baylor. And that’s no disrespect to Baylor but it’s just to provide a little light at the end of the tunnel; you know it’s not impossible to win two or three games. It was just to not let the Oklahoma thing devastate you or immobilize you. Because if that’s the way you thought of it, it could be paralyzing to think, ‘Oh my gosh, we just got beat, we didn’t play well and now we’ve got Oklahoma?’ I was just trying to get them to look at the big picture a little bit.”
The mind game partially worked as the Tigers toppled Oklahoma 4-1 behind a myriad of Sooner miscues. Missouri then fell to Baylor 1-0 as Whitney Canion tossed a two-hitter for the Bears and Holly Holl hit her second home run of the season with a solo shot in the bottom of the 13th.
Hold the hits
Baylor pitcher Whitney Canion was nearly untouchable against Missouri in the last game of the night. The sophomore held the Tigers to just two hits in 13 innings. After giving up a single to the second batter of the game, Canion didn’t allow another base knock until the Lisa Simmons led off the 12th with a solid single to right. Canion regrouped and got out of the frame without any damage, helping set up Holly Holl’s game-winning solo home run in the bottom of the 13th, the second extra-inning, solo homer to win a game for the Bears in the WCWS this year.
And another mark
Missouri’s Chelsea Thomas set a career best with 19 strikeouts in the 13-inning battle with Baylor. The total topped her previous best of 17 twice this season, both against Oklahoma, and was one shy of tying Debbie Doom’s WCWS mark of 20 strikeouts for UCLA against Oklahoma State in 1982.
When asked earlier in the week what freshman Hannah Rogers had to do to deserve a starting assignment in the circle in the WCWS, Florida coach Tim Walton said that she “needs to be a sophomore.” It seems that at this point in the season, the old cliché ‘There are no freshmen anymore in the postseason’ must be true in Walton’s book. Rogers got the nod in the circle Saturday for her fifth start in the past month after starting 29 of her first 39 appearances. Rogers came out a little unsettled, allowing two first-inning runs before going 4.1 innings allowing six hits and one earned run. Senior Stephanie Brombacher came in for 3.0 innings of one-hit ball in her first relief appearance since April and just the third of the year.
Quick start Cal
California quickly lit up the scoreboard as it pounced for two runs in the first inning to put Florida on its heels in the Golden Bears’ second game of the day. The Gators were unfamiliar with being behind so early as they had given up more runs in the first inning just three times this season, allowing eight and three runs to Kentucky in consecutive contests and three runs to Auburn in the SEC tournament, all three losses. UF rebounded, holding Cal to just four more hits the rest of the way in the 5-2 victory.
Freshman Ashley Decker had yet to record a triple in a Cal uniform, but with two outs in the fifth inning against Oklahoma State, she chose a perfect time to put one on the stat sheet. Decker cleared bases as she dropped one just under the glove of diving right fielder Sammy Jo Diffendaffer, part of a four-run frame. Elia Reid also came up with the bases loaded and struck out, after being 3 for 5 in the situation this season. Reid made up for it with an insurance run off her team-leading ninth homer of the season in the sixth.
Cal’s victory against Oklahoma State was win No. 87 all-time in NCAA tournament action. The Golden Bears are fourth all-time in NCAA play, now trailing Fresno State by only two wins.
Top of the list
Sophomore Chelsea Thomas did more than notch Missouri’s first win in the WCWS in 20 years in the 4-1 victory against Oklahoma. The complete-game win marked her 32nd victory of the year, tying Teresa Wilson in 1981 for the single-season school record. Thomas continued her strong showing, winning for the third time this season against the Sooners by pitching 6.0 innings of six-hit ball, including four hits in the seventh. The first two meetings were 9.0-inning and 11.0-inning, one-run wins for the Tigers.
Not so welcome back
Oklahoma sophomore All-American Jessica Shults returned to the lineup for the first time in the postseason when she batted eighth as the designated player against Missouri. She had missed the Sooners’ past seven games after being diagnosed with pan ulcerative colitis. On her return, Shults struck out on three pitches in her first at bat and finished 0 for 2 with two strikeouts.
“She been really working hard in practice to work on her swing,” Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said. “You know she is one of the best hitters out there in the country and even when she’s at 30 percent its pretty dang good. I wanted to give her an opportunity to step forward for her team, because she’s been dying for that opportunity and has worked hard for it and I think it helped inspire the team to see her with that bat in her hand.”
Who was that Sooner?
To say it wasn’t the cleanest of games for Oklahoma would be an understament. The Sooners posted four errors, allowing three unearned runs as Missouri pulled away and never was threatened. Part of the issue for OU was the fact it had a catcher behind the plate who had never played the position and a freshman third baseman who had limited reps. Dani Dobbs took over at catcher because Katie Norris had an elbow sprain, coach Patty Gasso said, and committed the first error during a run down on the third base line that allowed a Tiger score.
“It was a different dynamic,” Gasso said. “We we’re not used to seeing Dani run out, it’s something that hasn’t really happened to us all season and I think we were kind of standing there watching and needed someone cover home plate. It was just bad timing on our part.
Two and done
Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, the home-state schools competing together in the same Women’s College World Series for the first time, struggled as they were the first two teams eliminated from the field in Oklahoma City. Their baseball counterparts also fell short of their goals as the Sooner baseball team went 0 for 2 in the Forth Worth regional while the Cowboys lost each of their first two games in the Nashville regional to be ousted.
Father knows best
California pitcher Jolene Henderson ran into a little trouble in the fourth inning as she allowed five consecutive hits after holding Oklahoma State hitless the previous 3.1 innings. The sophomore quickly got back into a grove, limiting the damage to just two runs. She said her change-up had started to slow down too much and was leaving it a little too close to the zone. What inspired her to get the velocity back up?
“My dad was yelling and he’s telling me, ‘Make sure you’re going game speed.’ So I started to throw it harder again and it started to come back,” Henderson said.
Beating the heat
Fans haven’t been worried about the temperatures in Oklahoma City, which topped 95 on Saturday and is expected to be closer to 100 on Sunday. Despite the warm weather, there was a session-record crowd of 8,161 fans in the afternoon when home-standing Oklahoma and Oklahoma State played. Each session has been the highest fan total ever through the gates at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, putting it on pace to average more than 8,000 per session for the first time in history.
While there weren’t quite as many as Thusday’s opening-day plays, there were still a number of highlight-reel defensive gems, including:
• Oklahoma State shortstop Chelsea Garcia making a strong impression right off the bat in the bottom of the first inning as she picked off a shot to the hole by diving to her right and then throwing from her knees to get the runner at first.
• Missouri’s Rhea Taylor made a leaping catch on the run in deep left centerfield, stabbing a line drive out of the air that prevented extra bases for Ali Vandever.
• Florida shortstop Cheyenne Coyle arched back over her head and to the side while back pedaling to reel in a high chopper and then flip to second for the force out to get out of the frame.
• Baylor third baseman Kayce Walker made a tremendous reactionary move to snag a line drive zipping to her left as she crouched down in front of the bag in the top of the seventh inning of a scoreless game.