Behind freshman MVP Merritt, Florida captures SEC tournament championship
Five extra-base hits, including three bombs, helped lead Florida to a 10-4 victory against Missouri for the 2013 SEC tournament title Saturday, as the Orange and Blue swept both the regular-season and SEC Tournament titles for the third time in Florida history. Behind SEC Tournament MVP and Gator freshman centerfielder Kirsti Merritt, UF improved to 52-7 on the year and will wait for NCAA tournament seeding, announced at 10 p.m. ET Sunday.
Working from behind for their 18th such win of the year, Florida’s first two hits Saturday evening both left the yard as senior Kelsey Horton and Merritt both ripped two-run blasts to get the Gators rolling offensively.
After clinching their fourth SEC Championship in school history last week, the Gators returned defeat Alabama (8-4), Georgia (9-5) and finally Missouri (10-4) for their third SEC Tournament Title after also winning both the regular season and SEC tourney in 2008 and 2009. UF played in the tourney championship for the sixth time in program history and improved to 14-5 (.736) in the conference tournament under 2013 SEC Coach of the Year Tim Walton.
Three freshmen in first baseman Taylor Schwarz, second baseman Kelsey Stewart, Merritt and junior Stephanie Tofft represented the Orange and Blue on the SEC All-Tournament Team.
After a RBI double and a solo home run from Missouri in the first and second innings, respectively, for the 2-0 Tigers lead early, one swing of the bat in the bottom of the second from Horton knotted things up between the Gators and Tigers.
Sophomore starting pitcher Lauren Haeger first drew a leadoff walk and moved to second on a Chelsea Thomas wild pitch before Horton sent her ninth bomb of the year to straight-away center to tie the score at two after the second frame. Haeger picked up the win to improve to 15-2 on the season, while junior ace Hannah Rogers came on for three innings of relief to pick up her fourth save of the season.
Missouri opted to go with senior Lindsey Muller in the circle in the bottom of the third and the Gators made the Tigers pay after Stewart drew a leadoff walk as Merritt left the yard with a two-run blast of her own for the 4-2 Gator lead, chasing Muller from the circle in favor of senior Nicole Hudson.
A Stewart two-RBI triple – her staggering ninth of the season – ripped to the left-center wall plated freshman pinch runner Taylore Fuller and sophomore Katie Medina in the bottom of the fourth for the 6-2 Orange and Blue lead, Fuller running for sophomore Bailey Castro, who singled to left field and Medina who reached on a fielder’s choice in the inning.
Rogers, who picked up the win in UF’s semifinal victory against Georgia, came on in relief of Haeger in the circle in the fifth inning. After back-to-back doubles, including a Hudson RBI double to narrow UF’s lead, 6-3, Rogers sat down the next three batters to bring up the bottom of the fifth.
Tofft earned the run back for the Gators in the bottom of the fifth with a leadoff bomb over the right-field fence to give the Gators a four-run cushion with their fourth extra-base hit of the evening. Countering with a homer of her own, the Tigers’ Rachel Hay sent a solo homer over the left-field fence for a 7-4 ballgame after the top of the sixth inning.
Tofft and Haeger teamed up for UF’s eighth, ninth and 10th runs of the game for Florida in the bottom of the sixth, Tofft with a RBI single to left field and Haeger with a two-RBI double to the right-center gap for the 10-4 advantage.
Rogers closed it out for the Gators in the top of the seventh, dealing out a two-out walk before fanning Mackenzie Sykes in dramatic fashion for the victory.
Florida is now 22-23 (.488) all-time in the SEC Tournament. The Gators are 14-4 (.777) against top-25 opponents, tops in the SEC, own 18 come-from-behind wins – seven in SEC regular-season play – and are 5-2 (.714) in extra-inning games in 2013. Florida owns 18 shutouts, paced by Rogers’ nine.