OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – In an epic WCWS elimination game Saturday at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in OKC, it took a school-record 15 innings, seven ties, lead changes and two Florida runs in the top of the 15th inning for the Gator softball squad to solidify a 9-8 victory over Nebraska (45-16), earn a date with Texas Sunday and stay alive in the 2013 WCWS.
In the double-elimination WCWS format, the Gators will next match up with the Texas Longhorns (50-9) in a second elimination game at 1 p.m. (ET) Sunday on ESPN. Florida holds a 5-2 all-time advantage over Texas and has never faced the Longhorns in the Women’s College World Series. The two programs last met Feb. 24, 2012, at the Cathedral City Classic in Palm Springs and the Gators emerged with a 5-1 victory.
The Orange and Blue (58-8) erased an early 2-0 deficit against the Huskers Saturday with a monster six-run fifth inning to rally back for a 6-2 lead in the top of the frame. Nebraska added a third run in the bottom of the sixth before also putting up three in a chaotic seventh inning to twirl the game into extras, 6-6, UF’s eighth extra-innings contest of the season.
After the squads traded homers in the 10th inning, sophomore Briana Little (Middleburg, Fla.) going yard for the Gators in the top of the inning and Taylor Edwards sending a homer over the fence to lead off the bottom of the inning, four scoreless innings of free softball ensued with the game tied at 7-7 for the standing room only crowd at Hall of Fame Stadium.
In the top of the 15th, something gave when a freshman Taylore Fuller (Trenton, Fla.) grounder skipped past Nebraska shortstop Alicia Armstrong and into right center field, allowing a pair of Gators runners to score what turned out to be the decisive runs.
Florida would need both of those runs as Nebraska led off the bottom of the 15th with a double and got within 9-8 in the home half of the inning. Tatum Edwards drew a two-out walk and Gabby Banda followed with a single to left side, but Edwards was gunned down by Medina trying to get to third base. The game that started at 6:04 local time ended at 11:24 and the15-inning clash was the longest in UF softball history. The marathon additionally marked the longest under the new WCWS format.
Junior ace Hannah Rogers (Lake Wales, Fla.) rebounded Saturday and hurled the first seven innings of UF’s Saturday elimination game for the Orange and Blue (8.0 IP, 11 H, 6 ER, 3 BB, 1 K) before coming on for the final frame to pick up her fifth save of the season in the 15th and final inning. Sophomore righty Lauren Haeger (Peoria, Ariz.) came on in relief in extras with the game tied 7-7 to pick up the decision for the Gators (7.0 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 4 BB, 4 K) and improve to 16-2 in the circle for Florida.
A total of 534 pitches were hurled Saturday night, as all four pitchers – two for each squad – eclipsed the 100 mark, with Husker starting pitcher Tatum Edwards tossing 185 on the night. Little’s eight at bats Saturday set a new Florida individual game record, while the Gators’ 62 at bats as a team were a new single-game team record. Tatum Edwards (9.1 IP, 10 H, 5 ER, 5 BB, 12 K) started the game for Nebraska and, like Rogers, was relieved but came back on in the circle later in the game and picked up the decision (30-10).
Several highlight-reel defensive plays highlighted the game for Florida while the Gators connected for 13 hits on the night, as four players had double-digit hits and nine had at least one.
Florida put a runner on with two outs in each of first three innings for the Gators’ first three hits in the tilt before the Orange and Blue juiced the bags in the top of the third, started by a freshman center fielder Kirsti Merritt (Lake Panasoffkee, Fla.) two-out bunt single. Junior third baseman Stephanie Tofft (Lincoln, Calif.) and Haeger found their way on base next courtesy of a walk and hit-by-pitch, respectively, for ducks on the pond. Tatum Edwards put an end to the threat, though, with her fifth strikeout of the evening.
A leadoff base hit from Taylor Edwards in the bottom of the fourth down the left-field line, followed by a one-out blooper to shallow center for Nebraska’s Courtney Breault had runners on the corners for the Huskers before a Hailey Decker sac fly plated Nebraska’s first run of the game. In the same stanza, Armstrong sent a RBI single to center for the 2-0 Huskers lead heading to the fifth.
The Gators fought back in the top of the fifth, first using a freshman Kelsey Stewart (Wichita, Kan.) one-out single up the middle, followed by a Merritt walk to set up a Tofft RBI bouncer through the left side that narrowed the Nebraska lead, 2-1. A fielder’s choice for Haeger juiced the bags for senior Kelsey Horton (Valrico, Fla.), who sent a soft grounder to third that allowed Merritt to speed home safely with the game-tying run and a 2-2 ballgame.
Fuller next bounced a ball to the Nebraska shortstop who committed a costly overthrow to second that plated both Tofft and senior pinch runner Ensley Gammel (Bakersfield, Calif.) for the 4-2 lead. A Little bases-loaded fielder’s choice pushed UF’s fifth run of the inning across home and sophomore Bailey Castro (Pembroke Pines, Fla.) pinch hit single through the left side capped off the Gators’ monster six-run frame for the 6-2 lead.
A solo homer for Decker in the bottom of the sixth cut UF’s lead, 6-3, and Nebraska strung together a thrilling three-run seventh inning in the home half of the stanza to send the game to extras. A Taylor Edwards RBI single up the middle made it a 6-4 ballgame before a Brooke Thomason bases-loaded sac fly plated a fifth run for the Huskers for the second out. On the same play, Nebraska’s other two base runners advanced to third and home, respectively, but not before a rundown from freshman catcher Aubree Munro (Brea, Calif.) to Stewart to Tofft at third. Banda was able to cross home from third on the play after Tofft got tripped up in the rundown from third to home for the game-tying run.
For the eighth time this season, the Orange and Blue entered extras with the game at 6-6, led by Haeger’s charge in the circle. The bombs from each squad in the 10th resulted in a 7-7 standstill.
It took four more scoreless innings before the Gators capitalized on the Huskers’ fifth error of the contest when a Fuller stepped up and made rocket contact with a pitch right at Armstrong at shortstop, who was cuffed by a bounce. The ball caromed into the outfield, allowing both Haeger and sophomore Katie Medina (Downey, Calif.) to score. Fuller was thrown out trying to stretch the play to third base.
Nebraska center fielder Jordan Bettiol brought the Huskers within two in the bottom of the 15th on a RBI ground out, but sophomore Jess Damico (Gray Summit, Mo.) halted any threat when Tatum Edwards tried to take third from first on a Banda single to shortstop, but Damico gunned to Tofft at third for the final out of the game.
Florida is now 12-10 (.545) all-time in the WCWS and moved to 6-2 (.750) in extra-innings contests this season. Florida’s come-from-behind after the Gators’ overcame a 2-0 deficit marked the 22nd for UF this season. The Orange and Blue own a 49-30 (.620) all-time record in the NCAA Tournament, including a 44-20 (.688) record under eighth year head coach Tim Walton.