2014 Florida softball primer: Is this the year?

By Mike Brandes – OnlyGators.com Contributor

Spring is here and No. 3/4 Florida Gators softball is set to kick off the 2014 season by playing six games in four days as part of the Wilson-Demarini Tournament in Tampa, FL.

The Gators open as the preseason favorite to with the Southeastern Conference title, according to the league’s coaches, receiving 10 of 13 first-place votes.

Florida hopes to improve successful 2013 season which saw it finish 58-9 on the year and advance as far as the semifinals of bracket play in the 2013 Women’s College World Series. While the Gators once again fell short in Oklahoma City, OK, they return the core of last year’s squad and possess the veteran leadership to make another deep postseason run, one which could result in program’s first-ever national title despite five WCWS appearances in the last six seasons.

KEY DEPARTURES

Outfielder Kelsey Horton: The 2012 Capital One All-American, Horton was a mainstay in the outfield for Florida, starting 65 games while also serving as a team captain. She was a steady offensive presence in the middle of the lineup, finishing the 2013 season batting .262 (slugging .524) with 10 home runs and 37 RBIs. While Horton’s ability to impact the team on the field will be missed, her presence in the locker room and dugout might be the greatest loss for the Gators.

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Top 13 for 2013: Florida’s best moments of the year

For as bad as things went for the Florida Gators at times in 2013 (see the Not Top 13 for 2013), there were more than a fair share of bright spots. From breathtaking moments and game-winning plays to earning championships and setting records, the Gators had plenty to be proud of in 2013. Check out OnlyGators.com‘s Top 13 for 2013.

13 » A NEW TRADITION
Florida’s football program did not get much right in 2013, but instituting a new pre-game tradition – a “celebrity” serving as Mr. Two Bits in honor of the original, George Edmondson – was absolutely a bright spot. The Gators also picked the perfect person to kick off the new tradition with former running back Errict Rhett performing as if he was made for the role. Others had trouble stepping up to the high benchmark set by Rhett, but the honorary Mr. Two Bits was nevertheless a great sight for fans all season long…even if the team was not. OnlyGators.com sat down with Rhett after his appearance for an extensive interview about the experience and his career.

12 » 15-INNING MARATHON
In the fourth-longest game ever played at the Women’s College Series (longest since 1992), Florida softball prevailed 9-8 over Nebraska in a night game that lasted 15 innings and more than five hours, spanning into the early morning of the next day. The Gators lost two separate leads in the contest before rallying to score two runs in the top of the 15th; UF conceded a run in the latter half of the inning but held on for the victory. Unfortunately for Florida, it had to suit up just hours later for an elimination game against Texas at 1 p.m., one it lost 3-0. The Gators were ranked No. 2 entering the 2013 NCAA Tournament but fell short of a title.

11 » ALL HE WANTED WAS A CHANCE


Redshirt junior quarterback Tyler Murphy waited patiently as he got overlooked time and time again, most recently by head coach Will Muschamp and his offensive coordinators in favor of younger players with higher ratings coming out of high school. When junior QB Jeff Driskel went down with a fractured fibula against Tennessee, Murphy finally got his shot and made the most of it. Over a three-game stretch including games on Sept. 21, Sept. 28 (at Kentucky) and Oct. 5 (vs. Arkansas), Murphy completed 39-of-54 passes (72.2 percent) for 530 yards with five touchdowns and just one interception. (He also gained 135 yards and picked up two more scores with his legs.) Unfortunately for him, Murphy injured his shoulder on Oct. 12 against LSU and was simply not the same player as he took the field in more pain than he or the coaching staff decided to admit publicly. Murphy missed the final three games of the season due to that injury and ultimately transferred, feeling Muschamp would not give him a fair chance to win the starting job in 2014.

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No. 4 Texas blanks No. 2 Florida 3-0, eliminating Gators from Women’s College World Series

Forced to take the field less than 13 hours after last leaving it, No. 2 Florida Gators softball simply could not make contact with the ball, only registering one hit and striking out 14 times as the No. 4 Texas Longhorns picked up a 3-0 win in Sunday’s Women’s College World Series elimination game.

Florida (58-9) got most of its base runners on walks and hit batters as Texas (50-9) ace Blaire Luna kept the Gators at bay with her great command and terrific riseball, shutting out UF for the first and only time this season.

After getting a lead-off batter on board and in scoring position for the third-straight inning, the Longhorns finally delivered in the top of the third. With one down and runners on first and second, Kim Bruins lifted a ball just over the left field fence and off the outstretched glove of Gators sophomore left fielder Brianna Little for a three-run homer that provided Texas an early 3-0 advantage.

Florida responded by loading the bases in the bottom frame on a walk and two batters being hit by pitches, but sophomore designated player Lauren Haeger stranded all three of her teammates by striking out on a full count to end the inning.

Luna no-hit the Gators for 3.1 innings until freshman catcher Taylore Fuller finally smacked a single down the left field line. Florida wound up with two down and runners on first and second but left the inning without plating a run as sophomore pinch hitter Bailey Castro registered UF’s ninth strikeout in the first four innings.

Junior right-hander Hannah Rogers (7.0 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 4 BB, 4 K) allowed too many lead-off batters on but only struggled mightily in the top of the third. Luna (7.0 IP, 1 H, 5 BB, 14 K) simply out-pitched her as the Gators swung at too many pitches outside and off the plate. UF struck out 39 times during 29 innings of WCWS play (three games), an average of 1.34 times per inning.

Florida concludes the 2013 season by exceeding everyone’s expectations. The Gators swept the Southeastern Conference Championships (regular-season, tournament) and were ranked as a top-five team in the nation over their final 62 games of the 2013 campaign. UF advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the 11th-straight season and moved on to the WCWS for the fifth time in the last six years.

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No. 2 Florida softball eliminates No. 14 Nebraska from WCWS with 9-8 win in 15-inning thriller

The fourth-longest game ever played at the Women’s College World Series ended in celebration for No. 2 Florida Gators softball, which needed 15 innings and more than five hours to prevail 9-8 and eliminate the No. 14 Nebraska Cornhuskers from the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Florida (58-8) lost two separate leads on Saturday before rallying to score two runs in the top of the 15th, exactly the number it needed to take down Nebraska (45-16) and continue its storybook season.

The Gators flashed offense by loading the bases in the third but did not score until the fifth, when UF posted all six of the runs it plated during regulation. An incredible bottom of the seventh kept the Cornhuskers in the game, and a run by each team in the 10th inning extended Saturday’s contest even further.

Junior right-handed pitcher Hannah Rogers (8.0 IP, 11 H, 7 R [6 ER], 3 BB, K) – two days after lasting less than an inning in Florida’s WCWS opener – showed a renewed focus for the first six innings but unraveled in the final frame of regulation. She returned in the 15th and gave up another run but held on for the save. Sophomore RHP Lauren Haeger (7.0 IP, 3 H, ER, 4 BB, 4 K) was terrific in innings 8-14, keeping the Gators in the contest and picking up the victory.

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Two-run seventh pushes Florida past UAB

No. 2 Florida Gators softball blew two opportunities to put Saturday’s showdown with the UAB Blazers away but came up clutch when it mattered the most, registering two runs in the bottom of the seventh to walk off with a 4-3 win in the first game of the Gainesville Super Regional at Pressly Softball Stadium in Gainesville, FL.

Florida had the bases juiced with no outs in the bottom of the sixth but failed to plate a runner, leaving the game tied 2-2. In the top of the seventh, the Gators dropped a routine pop out that would have ended the frame; shortly thereafter, the Blazers put the go-ahead run on the board, taking a one-run lead heading into the final frame.

Trailing 3-2 entering the bottom of the seventh, Florida quickly loaded the bases again without coughing up an out as sophomore designated player Lauren Haeger (1/3, R, BB) and senior right fielder Kelsey Horton (0/2, RBI, R, BB) drew walks and freshman first baseman Taylor Schwarz (0/3) was hit by a pitch. Sophomore left fielder Brianna Little (1/1, RBI, 2 BB) was then plunked in the thigh by UAB hurler Leigh Streetman, tying the game at 3-3 with the bases still loaded for the Gators.

Freshman catcher Taylore Fuller (1/4) struck out looking, putting Florida’s first out on the board, but sophomore shortstop Katie Medina (1/3, RBI) erased concerns about wasting a bases-loaded opportunity for the second-straight inning by smacking a walk-off RBI single to left that pushed the Gators ahead of the Blazers for good.

Florida came back from three separate one-run deficits on Saturday, tying the game in the third and fifth innings before pulling away in the final frame. Junior right-handed pitcher Hannah Rogers (32-5, 7.0 IP, 6 H, 3 R [2 ER], 4 BB, 4 K) was not her best but nevertheless got the job done for the Gators in a complete game outing.

Gainesville Super Regional action will continue on Sunday as Florida (56-7) and UAB (40-18) return to the field at noon for a game set to air nationally on ESPN. Should a third game in the best-of-three series be necessary, it would begin around 3 p.m. on Sunday and also be shown live on ESPN.

One win Sunday would send the Gators back to the Women’s College World Series for the fifth time in school history (all in the last six seasons).

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FOUR BITS: swimming, WNIT, softball, lacrosse

1 » The Florida Gators swimming program won its second national title of the season on Friday when the men’s 800 Meter Freestyle Relay team took down the competition at the 2013 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships in Indianapolis, IN. Freshman Pawel Werner, redshirt junior Sebastien Rousseau, junior Marcin Cieslak and sophomore Dan Wallace swam the race in a school-record time of 6:13.27 to bring home the title for the second time in the last three seasons. A week earlier on March 22, junior Elizabeth Beisel captured the NCAA title in the 400 Meter Individual Medley in 4:00.49. It was her second individual national title (first in the event) as she previously won the 200 Meter Backstroke in 2012. The Gators men’s and women’s swimming programs each finished in sixth place overall.

2 » Florida women’s basketball certainly did not have a successful regular season, but head coach Amanda Butler’s squad has been playing with renewed intensity in the 2013 Women’s NIT and advanced to the Final Four of the event over the weekend with an 85-80 victory over the James Madison Dukes (25-11) in Harrisonburg, VA. The Gators (22-14), which trailed by one with 1:06 to play, jumped ahead on a jumper by freshman guard January Miller with 53 seconds remaining and never lost the lead again. Junior G Jaterra Bonds hit four free throws down the stretch to extend Florida’s lead and help the team move on in the tournament. Freshman forward Sidney Moss led the way for UF with a game-high 27 points, and Bonds added 20 of her own including the game-clinching free throws.

Florida is in the semifinals of a postseason tournament for just the second time in program history (first since 2000) and are two victories away from their first-ever title. The Gators will next take on Drexel on April 3 at 7 p.m. in Philadelphia, PA.

3 » No. 3 Florida softball (35-3, 10-2 SEC) concluded the month of March on Sunday by picking up a road series win over the Ole Miss Rebels (19-21, 1-11 SEC) in Oxford, MS and extending their winning streak to nine games. Junior right-handed pitcher Hannah Rogers (20-2) threw a pair of complete games on Friday and Sunday morning, giving up six hits and one earned run while striking out 11. Rogers also earned her second save of the season in the second half of Sunday’s double-header, pitching three innings in relief of sophomore RHP Alyssa Bache (6-0). The Gators’ hitting was well-rounded throughout the weekend with junior third baseman Stephanie Tofft, senior right fielder Kelsey Horton, sophomore left fielder Brianna Little, freshman first baseman Taylor Schwarz and sophomore second baseman Jessica Damico reach registering at least one multi-RBI outing.

4 » No. 2 Florida lacrosse (13-1, 1-1 ALC) is undefeated no longer as it suffered a tough upset loss at the hands of the No. 9 Penn State Nittany Lions (7-3, 2-0 ALC) while on the road in State College, PA. The Gators fell 16-11 on Saturday as the Nittany Lions battled back from a three-goal first-half deficit to outscore the visitors 10-2 in the second half and pull off the victory. Florida will close out the regular season in April and next takes on Johns Hopkins on April 6 at noon in Gainesville, FL.

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One night, two late game-winners for Gators

Florida women’s basketball was facing elimination from the 2013 Women’s NIT while Gators softball was about to fall to a heated rival when a late-game swish of the net and an extra-inning crack of the bat turned the fortunes of the respective teams in a pair of nail-biter situations Wednesday evening.

Though Florida women’s basketball did not receive an invitation to the NCAA Tournament, the Gators have been fighting for their lives on the road. After taking down Florida International 75-68 in first-round action last Thursday, UF earned a dominant 85-53 victory over Winthrop on Monday to advance to the WNIT round of 16.

On Wednesday, the Gators (21-14) took on the Charlotte 49ers (26-6) and were engaged in an absolute dogfight. Florida coughed up its lead with less than six minutes to play and found itself in a four-point hole with possession and 1:05 remaining.

Just 13 seconds into the possession, freshman guard January Miller drained a three-pointer with 52 seconds left to cut the Gators’ deficit to one. On the ensuing possession, freshman forward Christin Mercer swiped the ball from Charlotte’s Ny Hammonds and junior G Jaterra Bonds got fouled on a shot attempt.

At the line with a chance to go ahead by a point with 20 seconds remaining, Bonds made the first free throw but missed the second. Suddenly, senior F Jennifer George swooped in for the rebound and head coach Amanda Butler called a 30-second timeout with 15.6 seconds remaining.

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Haeger leads Florida over LSU in SEC Tournament

In the first postseason start of her young career, freshman Lauren Haeger pitched a gem for No. 7 Florida Gators softball, which used a late run to take down the LSU Tigers 1-0 in the first game of the 2012 Southeastern Conference Tournament.

Haeger allowed two hits while striking out eight in her complete game outing for Florida (45-10) with her only flaw being the five walks she scattered over seven innings. She was not alone in allowing free passes on Thursday as LSU (34-22) starter Brittany Mack was also generous, giving up three walks and hit four batters in her five innings.

The pitchers’ duel between Haeger and Mack lasted 4.5 innings. Mack was nursing a no-hitter until the bottom of the fifth when she walked freshman designated hitter Bailey Castro (0/2, BB) and gave up her first hit of the game three batters later to freshman third baseman Sami Fagan (1/3, RBI, SB). Fagan’s RBI single scored freshman Brianna Little (who pinch ran for Castro) from second for the only run of the game.

The Gatos advance to the SEC Tournament semifinals where they will face either two-seed Tennessee or seven-seed Auburn on Friday at 2 p.m. live on ESPNU. Three-seed Florida must win that game to compete Saturday in the SEC Tournament final for the first time since winning the event in 2009.

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