May 30, 2010

By Paul D. Bowker
Special to

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - When University of Florida shortstop Brittany Walker reached up to catch a pop-up for the final out Sunday, Gators pitcher Stephanie Brombacher leaped up in celebration.

Within seconds, Brombacher was tackled to the ground by her teammates in a piece of Florida softball history. The Gators' 5-2 win over Arizona State completed a two-game sweep of the Sun Devils in an NCAA Division I Super Regional, and sent the Gators to the College Softball World Series for the third consecutive year.

Until 2008, Florida had never been to college softball's biggest dance.

"I'm just excited to be going," said Brombacher, a junior who was a backup to now USA Softball pitcher Stacey Nelson the last two years.

"To get to the College World Series the first time with a good team (2008), to get there the second time with an even better team and then to get there a third time, that's when you build a program," Florida coach Tim Walton said.

Florida (48-8), the tournament's No. 4 seed, will play UCLA or Louisiana-Lafayette in the opening round of the Softball World Series on Thursday. Those teams were scheduled play at 7 p.m. on Sunday. The Gators, Southeastern Conference East champs this year and national runners-up last year, have not lost in five postseason games.

ASU caused a bit of nail-biting in the final inning at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium, loading the bases and scoring a run. But the Gators put this game away early with a power-hitting attack that included two home runs by Kelsey Bruder, one homer by Megan Bush and a triple by Walker. In two games, the Gators outscored the No. 13-seeded Sun Devils 13-2. Ten of Florida's 14 hits over two days were for extra bases, including five home runs.

"I take my hat off to the University of Florida," ASU coach Clint Myers said. "I think they did a great job."

The day after the Gators disposed of ASU ace pitcher Hillary Bach with a five-inning, mercy win, Bruder drilled two Megan Elliott pitches over the fence in Elliott's final game as a senior. Elliott's pitches are faster than Bach's, and much of Sunday's game resulted in battles between the hard-throwing Elliott and the aggressive-swinging Gators.

"I like the battle. It gives me a challenge," Elliott said.

For two innings, Elliott won that battle. Then, Bruder, who has hit over .600 in five postseason games, kicked Florida's power game into gear with a 230-foot home run with a runner aboard in the third inning. She smacked another one in the fifth inning for a 4-0 Gators lead. That was the last time Myers allowed Elliott to pitch to Bruder.

In the seventh inning, when the Sun Devils refused to pitch to Bruder by intentionally walking her, it still led to a Florida run. With Broder at first base and Walker at third, the Gators used a double steal to send Walker home. Bruder pulled in safely at second base with her 12th stolen base of the season.

Between Broder's homers, Bush launched an Elliott pitch into the trees beyond the center-field fence in the fourth inning, a blast of about 245 feet.

"She left it on the field,' Myers said of Elliott, who won 12 of 15 decisions this year. "I was extremely proud of the way she pitched."

Almost lost in all this Florida hitting power was the pitching of Brombacher, who has thrown three shutouts in five postseason games. The first run she yielded in this series came courtesy of an illegal pitch called on her by umpire Tanya Garig. In three years, Brombacher has won 78 of 82 decisions.

Brombacher was helped by a strong defense, which included ASU speedster Lesley Rogers being thrown out on an attempted base steal for the first time this season (she was 23-for-23). And in the fifth inning, Brombacher helped herself by grabbing a line drive hit by ASU's Katelyn Boyd for the inning's final out.

But in the seventh, with the Gators crowd standing every time Brombacher got two strikes on a batter with two out, the Sun Devils loaded the bases on two singles and an infield grounder that couldn't be played. Brombacher got a glove on a single by Rogers that drove home Caylyn Carlson. Finally, Brombacher got Kaylyn Castillo on the game-ending pop-up.

"There were some nerves there," Brombacher said.

"I'm happy we didn't see a lot of their offense," Walton said with a look of relief on his face. "They string their pitches together and that's what they've done all year long."