By Mike Brandes – OnlyGators.com Contributor
No. 3 Florida Gators opened up the 2014 season with a clean sweep of the USF Wilson-DeMarini Tournament in Tampa, FL, winning six games over four days including a thriller over a ranked opponent.
Florida (6-0) outscored its competitors 40-13 over the weekend as junior right-handed pitcher Lauren Haeger, who was named Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Week on Monday, shined by tossing her first-career no-hitter in the event’s penultimate matchup.
Starting off the season with a win for the eighth time in head coach Tim Walton’s nine-year tenure, the Gators topped the South Florida Bulls in their opening game. Senior RHP Hanna Rogers pitched seven innings, allowing three runs while recording six strikeouts. UF literally weathered the storm – a 25 minute rain delay – with its bats coming alive in the fourth inning.
Sophomore first baseman Taylor Schwarz led the way offensively with a bases-clearing three-RBI single in the fourth inning, which was part of a seven-run fourth for Florida. The Gators, which won 10-3, also benefited from some free passes. “We had 11 walks and five hit-by-pitches – that’s 16 free bases,” said Walton. “We had really solid plate discipline.”
Florida continued its success the next afternoon by sweeping a daytime doubleheader against the Illinois State Redbirds and the Wisconsin Badgers in chilly, overcast conditions.
The runs did not come as plentifully against the Redbirds with the Gators ultimately benefiting from a game-winning RBI double by sophomore outfielder Kirsti Merritt in the fifth. Haeger (6.0 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 7 K) led the way to a 3-2 win, which was the 800th victory in the history of the UF softball program.
Rogers (7.0 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 9 K) went the distance for Florida against Wisconsin in the second game. She struggled early and gave up a home run to the third Badgers hitter she faced but held things down over the duration of the contest as the Gators picked up a 5-3 win. An RBI single by sophomore catcher Aubree Munro tied the game in the sixth, but a four-run seventh including an RBI triple by Schwartz (who later came around as the team’s fifth run) cinched the victory.
UF faced its biggest test Saturday against the No. 4 Michigan Wolverines after giving up four runs in the third on a grand slam and going scoreless through the first six innings. The Gators’ previously dormant bats woke up in a major way in the top of the seventh as Munro came up clutch by belting a two-out, three-run double to get her team on the board. Florida still trailed by one with just a single out remaining but ultimately knotted things up at 4-4 when Rogers – in as a pinch runner – scored on an RBI single via the bat of sophomore second baseman Kelsey Stewart.
The Gators jumped ahead for good in the the first frame of extra innings, scoring five runs in the top of the eighth. Schwarz and sophomore Taylore Fuller, the latter in as a pinch hitter – each smacked a two-run homer to give Florida plenty of cushion as freshman left-handed pitcher Delanie Gourley (8.0 IP, 4 ER, BB, 5 K) shut the door on Michigan with a perfect frame to conclude a complete game effort to end her first career start with a 9-4 victory.
All that was left for UF on the weekend was a pair of games against Wisconsin and the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats. Florida outscored those teams 5-1 and 8-0, respectively, on Sunday to leave Tampa with a flawless record.
Haeger (7.0 IP, R, 3 BB, 11 K) tossed her first career no-hitter in the opening contest but failed to pitch a shutout by allowing five base runners via a hit batter, an error and three walks. Stewart connected on a two-run dinger in the fourth in the game’s highlight offensive play.
“She looked like she was pitching,” said Walton of Haeger’s no-no, “she didn’t look like she was throwing. … I thought this weekend she was probably one of the better of the four pitchers.”
The Gators’ blowout of the Wildcats was over by the second inning when Florida scored all eight of its runs. Senior third baseman Stephanie Tofft got things rolling with a two-run homer, and Stewart soon hit a bases-clearing triple that put things well out of reach for Bethuen-Cookman.
Rogers, Haeger and Gourley each finished with 2-0 records over the weekend.
UF is set to play its home opener Wednesday, hosting Jacksonville at 6 p.m.