Making their coach look good
Florida dominance made taking chances easy for Tim Walton
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Florida head coach Tim Walton rolled the dice on Tuesday night.
After senior Hannah Rogers tossed her sixth shutout of the 2014 postseason during Monday night's opener of the best of three championship series of the Women's College World Series, Walton gave the ball to junior Lauren Haeger and freshman Delanie Gourley.
Who pitched might have been moot, however.
After failing to reach gold in five previous trips to Oklahoma City since 2008, UF finally got its hand on the coveted NCAA championship trophy.
"This is a surreal moment for me right now," Walton said late Tuesday. "To be up here with Hannah [Rogers] and all the other kids that really just bought into it this year. We had a really good offseason; we just felt good about our team.
"We set a goal. Most teams set goals of winning every series, or win the SEC, but this team actually set a goal to win a national championship. This team, we felt like we had the parts and the pieces to do it. I'm very proud of this team, they deserve all the credit."
Although the pitching of Rogers has been close to perfect all week, it was the offense that was head and shoulders above the competition. This postseason, UF outscored opponents 81-10, including 32-6, in five games in Oklahoma City. Every offensive category had a UF hitter either at the top or tied for the top spot.
"We just stuck to the plan, swinging at good pitches," said senior Stephanie Tofft, who homered on Tuesday.
"I give it to my team, we just never give up until there are three outs," said sophomore Kelsey Stewart, who had a tournament-high eight hits this week.
Eight Gators had at least one hit on Tuesday as UF continued a trend. In 136 at-bats, UF collected 45 hits, good for a .331 averaged in the WCWS. Another sophomore, Kirsti Merritt, had six hits with two home runs, five RBI, and a tournament-high seven runs scored. Aubree Munro had a big home run on Monday; Bailey Castro was 5-for-9 with a homer and four RBI; Tofft had five hits and six RBI.
And the list goes on and on and on. Florida fans should have seen this coming when freshman Chelsea Herndon's first WCWS at-bat produced a walk-off grand slam last Thursday.
"You go into a big game like [Tuesday] and you obviously feel a little bit of pressure," Haeger said. "But it was a breath of fresh air when we scored those four runs, it gives you some breathing room. Our offense has been great all week, so I knew we were going to score after we got down early."
In the field, UF was perfect until Tuesday when they committed an uncharacteristic four errors. But, like they have done all tournament, they twisted a pair of double plays when needed. Of the nine double plays turned this week, seven were by the Gators, a WCWS record. Merritt, in center field, brought teammates, fans, and viewers to their feet with a sensational diving catch to open the top of the seventh.
Rogers, named the WCWS's Most Outstanding Player, did not have a problem with Haeger getting the start. After Monday's performance, Rogers had allowed just three runs in 42 postseason innings. Haeger had not thrown a pitch this week and had started just 12 games all season; Gourley had not entered the circle since tossing a no-hitter May 16 in UF's first NCAA tournament game.
"Any time we've gone with Hannah after a Hannah Rogers 'W' and come back the next day, we've lost every time," Walton said. "We went into this three-game series knowing that, and we had Lauren [Haeger] to pitch [Tuesday], win or lose. We stuck with it.
"I honestly didn't sleep very well [Monday] night, not that I didn't have any trust in Delanie [Gourley] and Lauren [Haeger], because I do, but Hannah was just on fire. To take her out of this game and to throw the other two, I know was gutsy, I know it was bold, but we've talked all year long about not having a superstar on our team. We have players that do their job, and [Tuesday] was a perfect example of that. Each one of them had a complete-game shutout in Regionals, and for each one of them to be a part of this championships game is something very, very special."
"It was a three-game series and that is how we've been doing it all year," Haeger said. "Hannah has been pitching great and I told my team and I told Hannah I was going to go as long and as hard as I can. I knew I had two pitchers behind me that were going to shut everyone down.
"It was a great feeling, getting that call, because it let me know that coach trusted me."
Rogers finished her career by holding opponents scoreless in 47 of her last 49 innings.
"I couldn't have done it without my teammates," Rogers said. "The defense behind me and the way the offense has been going this weekend; all the hard work that we put into throughout this season and to do it for coach and all the hard work he has put in the last four years, doing it with these girls is a great feeling."
Watson couldn't keep from smiling following Tuesday's WCWS-clinching victory. Another reason to smile is a quick look at the Gator roster -- only Rogers and Tofft were seniors in 2014.