OKLAHOMA CITY -- Aleshia Ocasio got the top on her shoulder late Saturday night. Florida coach Tim Walton had something to tell the freshman from St. Cloud, Florida.
Walton told Ocasio that she would get the start on the mound for Game 1 of the championship series at the Women's College World Series.
“I was pumped, I was ready,” Ocasio said. “I said let's go. I knew my team was behind and everybody has my back.”
With a player as talented as Ocasio it normally wouldn't be unusual for her to get the start in such a crucial moment. But she shares the bullpen with National Player of the Year Lauren Haeger and Delanie Gourley, who has been solid in her own right since arriving at Florida in 2014.
But Walton has faith that any of the trio could perform whenever called upon. That includes Ocasio, a first year player competing in her first run at a national title and Gourley, a sophomore who hasn't pitched since the SEC tournament.
“I have a lot of confidence in our pitching and defense,” Walton said after the Gators' 3-2 win on Monday night. “They worked their butts off. They throw six days a week and really work on what they need to do and master their craft. And they really showed a nice, wonderful kind of assortment of pitches tonight. I'm really proud of the way the two pitched.”
Ocasio (18-3) picked up the victory after throwing six innings and allowing two runs on five hits. Gourley earned the saved after taking over in the seventh with a 3-2 lead.
“First of all, I'm so proud of them,” Haeger said. “They worked so hard, just like I do. And they deserve what they did tonight. Aleshia is amazing and Delanie is amazing, and I've said the whole time that I am going to need them to have my back throughout this whole entire tournament. And they're just so great, and I couldn't be any more proud of them. So happy for them. It's such a good win for them tonight.”
Haeger, who accounted for all three RBIs for the Gators, is expected to get the start Tuesday in Game 2. But Walton could once again throw a curve and put Gourley on the mound first. Having that type of option has the Gators on the verge of winning a second consecutive national title.
“I think what we were able to do last year obviously helps me because of making the right decision, knowing what's right for our program,” Walton said. “Over the last two seasons we really just talked about trying to create a good pitching staff. And we've been able to get Aleshia some quality innings in the SEC and have her matched up against some quality opponents preseason and even Delanie. That was the key.”
But Walton also admits it hasn't been easy. His style of having a deep pitching rotation goes against the philosophy of most teams in the NCAA who tend the ride one ace hurler for an entire season. Trying to convince three different players at different points in their career that sharing the mound is the best option has been challenging.
“It's not easy,” Walton said. “You've got to deal with the personalities a little bit because each one of these three up here could be a No. 1 pitcher at a lot of places. And each one of these pitchers have been a No. 1 pitcher probably even through this season, to be honest with you. I think we work really hard on the character and team-building side of our program.
"And I think each one of them, I mean I've recruited all three of them so they all understood what they were doing when they came here. I think each one of them is going to leave their mark in a different way when they leave here.”
Coming out of high school, Ocasio was an All-American, Player of the Year and three-time All-Stater. With Haeger and Gourley already established with the Gators, she could have gone anywhere and become the team's ace as soon as she stepped on campus.
But Ocasio decided to come to Florida where she wouldn't be guaranteed to pitch every game.
“It's been bumpy one adjusting from travel ball in high school, coming to a collegiate team,” Ocasio said. “I've been working with the coaches and the rest of my teammates. I've been transitioning. It's been great throughout the season, but coming in it's definitely been a challenge. I didn't have any expectations. Delanie and Lauren are both great pitchers. So I was just going to establish a role and do my best for this team.”