July 25, 2024

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Harry Fodder: Red-Hot Offense Crafts Super Story

Harry Fodder: Red-Hot Offense Crafts Super Story

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – To understand (better yet, appreciate) where the Florida softball team is right now, let’s revisit where the Gators were less than a month ago. 
 

On April 24, UF led rival Florida State late and watched the Seminoles blow up the scoreboard with a 12-run fifth-inning and eventually hand the Gators an ugly, mercy-rule defeat. At home, no less. The loss was Florida’s fifth in eight games and brought about some harsh reality – and real talk – from Coach Tim Walton relative to the prospects for the season. More specifically, the postseason. 
 
UF, at the time, checked in at No. 19 in the computer numbers that eventually would seed the NCAA Tournament. 
 
“I told them we were on the road for regionals,” Walton said. 
 
That would have been bad news, of course. The 2023 Gators were on the road for regionals last year and exited tournament play early. The 2024 team was supposedly better. Much, much better. And to make the most of the season UF needed to be one of the top 16 teams, meaning it would be home for the first NCAA rounds. Gators, though, were on the outside looking in and Walton knew it. As for a coveted top-8 seed and hosting a Super Regional? Fantasyland.
 
Update: No. 4-seed Florida (49-12), after rolling through this weekend’s NCAA Gainesville Regional by an aggregate score of 24-2 (with a couple run-rule blowout victories), will play host to Baylor (36-20) in a Super Regional this weekend at Pressly Stadium. 
 
What happened?
 
“We won 11 in a row,” Walton said after UF’s 9-1 defeat over South Alabama in Sunday’s sub-regional title round, giving his program its fifth regional sweep since 2018, with those sweeps coming in home action. “I don’t know what to say? I didn’t put pressure on them. I didn’t do anything. They just started playing better.”
 
Here’s how much better: Florida has won 12 of the last 13, with a couple of those victories monumental in getting the Gators’ psyche to what appears to be a very, very happy place. More like an ecstatic place. 

[Read senior writer Chris Harry’s “And That’s the Ballgame” recap here]

 

To review, just two days after that humbling home rout at the hands of the Seminoles, UF went to No. 9 Georgia and posted a 9-1 run-rule defeat of the Bulldogs. Nice bounce back, ladies. The Gators dropped the next game, but took the series with a 10-7 victory in the rubber game when Jocelyn Erickson, her team trailing by two and down to its last strike, blasted a three-run go-ahead homer in the seventh. Erickson’s was the biggest hit of a seven-run inning that illustrated this team’s explosive offensive firepower. It was a great win.

 

The next one was even better. 

 

On May 1, in a rematch at Florida State and just one week since the previous Seminoles debacle, the Gators took a six-run lead into the bottom of seventh inning only to let host FSU rally to tie the game. Two extra innings later, Kendra Falby stroked her first homer of the season and UF – despite the late meltdown and all the deflating emotions that came with it – left Tallahassee with an emotional 15-13 triumph.

 

“No one ever wins a game like that,” Walton said.  

 

That was Win No. 2 of this 11-game streak during which the Gators also won the Southeastern Conference Tournament crown and along the way averaged nearly 8.5 runs per game, hit .331 as a team and paired their slugging with a couple freshman pitchers, ace Keagan Rothrock and Ava Brown, who are coming of age (along with their teammates) at a very good time. 

 

“You choose to come to a program like this because you want to win. That’s what this program does,” said Brown, the confident Texan who was the pitcher of record Sunday with three innings of no-stress relief and – a day after blasting her 13th homer of the season – also had a big 2-RBI single in UF’s seven-run fourth inning that basically put the game away. “Being able to surround myself with people who want to compete like I do, that’s why championships are on my resume.”

Ava Brown is fired up after snagging a rocket line drive back to the circle for the final out of her team’s 9-1 win.

Brown is 19 years old, yet sounds like she’s 29. Same with sophomore catcher Jocelyn Erickson, who also knows a little bit about championships. She transferred from Oklahoma, where she won a NCAA title last year. 
 
Suffice to say Erickson, from Phoenix, has made her mark with her new team. Her two-run homer in the first inning was her 13th of the season (tied for second on the team) and gave Erickson 78 RBI on the season, just two off the program’s single-season record. Erickson, who was named 2024 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year (on the same team that produced 2023 SEC Player of the Year Skylar Wallace, by the way), arrived last fall, surveyed the UF personnel landscape and culture, and offered a strong assessment. 
 
“I was telling everybody in the locker room, ‘We’re going to the World Series,’ ” she said. “That’s the plan and that’s the job we’re ready to accomplish.”
 
It’ll take two wins this week to get there. 
 
If the Gators come to KSP with the same confident, free-swinging vibe of the last month, another trip to Oklahoma City – Walton’s teams have gone 11 times – is a very real possibility. 
 
Walton may insist he “didn’t do anything” to initiate this roll, but he clearly (as usual) has the pulse of his clubhouse, his players and is wired into exactly what this group does best. It starts with the way they mash the ball up and down the order. Of UF’s 24 runs in the regional, half came on RBI from hitters in the 6 through 9 holes.

Florida players celebrate their regional conquest.

Meanwhile, the pitching and defense are catching up, which should be of concern for the incoming Bears. And beyond, if the Gators get there.
 
“Obviously, if I’m pitching, I’m feeling good because I know this team can score runs. That makes it really fun to take the ball knowing they have a chance to win a ballgame; that they don’t have to be perfect; that we can still find a way to win,” Walton said of Rothrock (27-6), who’s won her last six decisions, and Brown (16-5). “When this offense goes, we really go.”
 
For now, all the way to Supers, with OKC a very realistic goal.
 
Check back in a week.