A tumultuous weekend and up-and-down season came to a conclusion for No. 5 Florida Gators softball as the team fell 1-0 to the South Florida Bulls and failed in their bid to advance out of the Gainesville Regional in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
Florida (48-13) lost the first game of the regional but won consecutive contests in the loser’s bracket on Saturday to move on to the finals against USF (48-11). The Gators were hoping to win and force a second game on Sunday but instead lost the contest and failed to reach the Women’s College World Series for the fifth-straight season.
Sophomore right-hander Hannah Rogers (28-8) got the nod to start and pitched a complete game, allowing one earned run on four hits with no walks and four strikeouts in 7.0 innings. Her lone blemish came in the top of the fourth when an infield single allowed the Bulls to score what would end up being the game-deciding run.
Rogers’s complete game performance was matched by South Florida starter Sara Nevens, who allowed five hits and three walks but struck out 12 including two important batters in the bottom of the sixth inning.
Florida rallied to load the bases with no one out but failed to cross the plate as Nevins struck out consecutive batters and forced an infield groundout to get out of the frame unscathed.
Senior center fielder Michelle Moultrie, playing her last game in orange and blue, was the only Florida batter to register more than one hit as she went 2-for-4 on the afternoon. She concluded her UF career as the team’s all-time leader in batting average (.385), stolen bases (83) and stolen base attempts (99). Moultrie also picked up a number of awards during her tenure with the Gators including 2010 SEC Player of the Year, 2011 WCWS Co-Most Outstanding Player, 2011 WCWS All-Tournament Team and a number of All-American honors.
It is the first time since 2006 that Florida did not move on to the Super Regional.
Though he did not get into specifics regarding the incident that led to him eventually suspending three of his starters, head coach Tim Walton spoke more about the general situation following Sunday’s loss at Pressly Softball Stadium in Gainesville, FL.
“I think at the end of the day, it’s all about your team,” Walton said, according to ESPN. “And it’s all about the program. It’s all about the University of Florida. It’s all about the Gators. I’m not going to say too many words, but that’s what it’s all about. That’s the most important part of being a leader of this team. It’s all about the Gators.”
He added, “I think it’s a lesson for everybody. It’s a lesson for me as a parent. It’s a lesson for me as a coach. It’s a lesson for our players. It’s a lesson for our staff and our coaches. Again, I think at the end of the day as a coach I try to do the best job that I can do and gathering everything I can do to be a good leader and try to be consistent as possible.”
Walton’s suspensions of freshman third baseman Sami Fagan (team-best .378 batting average), sophomore right fielder Kasey Fagan (experienced starter) and sophomore shortstop Cheyenne Coyle (third in home runs with 10 and RBIs with 34) undoubtedly put the Gators in holes both offensively and defensively in the field. In fact, the ladies likely would have had an opportunity to bat in the bottom of the sixth when Florida had the bases loaded with no outs and were looking for a run to tie the game.
Walton, however, said their absences for his team’s loss as timely situational hitting has been an issue for the Gators all season long.
“I don’t think it’s about three people. I think it’s about where we were at as a team and how we did offensively and what we can do to get that clutch hit. That’s been the M.O. of our team all year long, finding a way to get the clutch hit,” he said. “To be honest with you, that stuff right there was happening all season. Bases loaded we hit our worst this season and I think [the sixth inning] was really the exclamation point to a season of young players putting a lot of pressure on themselves in the situation of bases loaded.”
Florida made their first WCWS appearance in 2008 and had not faltered in returning to the Promised Land since until Sunday’s devastating loss. In fact, it had been five years since the Gators won fewer than four games in a NCAA Tournament (one in 2006).
UF will enter the 2013 season with more questions than answers for the first time in years. Florida has lot their best up-and-coming player, a two-year veteran and a stellar defender and power bat at a position of need. The Gators will also be without their hardest worker and best example of perseverance due to graduation.
How do you replace four starters including three at positions you expected to have filed for at least two more seasons? That’s for Walton to figure out, and his suddenly short roster is not going to do him any favors.