March 18, 2009

Being No. 1 means consistently taking on an opponents' best effort, or "wearing a target on [your] back," as Florida pitcher Stacey Nelson put it.

"I wish they didn't even have rankings," Nelson, the Gators' No. 1 hurler said.

Even so, she and the rest of the top-ranked team in the nation have carried the designation with poise and, after a two-game sweep over then-No. 8 Georgia in an SEC showdown last week, with authority.

"Georgia's a team we always want to beat hard," said catcher Kristine Priebe. "We don't usually get overly pumped for any one game, but with this we wanted to send a message that it's going to be tough to beat Florida."

That message should resonate through the SEC loud and clear.

The Gators blanked the Bulldogs twice, including a 15-0 rout in the first game.

While such lopsided results in a top-10 match-up may come as a surprise, the Gators have been about defying expectations for some time now.

UF went an incredible 67-3, 27-1 in conference play, a season ago. Florida's .957 winning percentage was tops in the field at the College World Series - the first such trip to the championship in program history.

"People say first-time teams [at the WCWS] don't do well, but we did," Priebe said.

Florida fell one game shy of the best-of-three championship round after a loss to Texas A&M. This year's squad looks primed for another crack at it, this time with firsthand experience.

The Gators have a roster loaded with talent: Priebe has seven RBI and two home runs in just 18 plate appearances; Nelson's won 14 games and amassed a 0.40 ERA; catcher Francesca Enea has 36 RBI and eight home runs; five others have 19 or more RBI, and pitcher Stephanie Brombacher is 13-0 with a .79.

With all that talent one might assume ego would come standard. But according to both Priebe and Nelson, the lack of self-aggrandizing is one of the team's greatest strengths.

"We have a great chemistry," Priebe said, adding that it was developed through pre-season months of strenuous conditioning and various other workouts.

That cohesiveness is evident when Nelson speaks on her individual success.

"I am grateful everyday for our spectacular defense," she said. "They make plays and have gotten me out of a lot of tough innings. "We can always count on the offense to provide run support, and Stephanie Brombacher has been outstanding," Nelson continued. "When I'm having an off-day she comes in and gets it done."

Priebe elaborated on how Florida is parlaying its individual talents into a collective unit. She said that dedication to individual achievements has been a catalyst for the entire team.

"You do have to be selfish to be a good player, but you have to balance it out [with the deference to team]. That's what helps us be great together."

And as the Gators continue to be "great together," their standing in the polls will only be further solidified. But don't ask Nelson about it.

"I don't even know where we're ranked until someone tells me."

CARDINAL LOOK TO KEEP ROLLING

No. 4 Stanford had the week off for exams, leaving the nation's longest win streak at 23 games. However the Cardinal are back in action this weekend, hosting Pacific, Winthrop and nearby Santa Clara and Pacific in the Stanford Invitational. A single game, non-conference tilt with Cal Poly is the final tune-up before a Pac-10 opening showdown with No. 5 UCLA.

BIG WEEK FOR THE BIG 10

This week's top movers were both from the Big 10, but neither is likely to offer the other a congratulatory phone call. Ohio State made the largest climb in the polls, from 22 to 17. Rival Michigan meanwhile picked up a key non-conference win when the Wolverines blanked Arizona, 4-0.