SEC's Florida, Alabama semi-tough
OKLAHOMA CITY -- A few days before the start of the Women's College World Series, Baylor coach Glenn Moore suggested it was time people eased up on the adulation directed at SEC softball.
His frustration was legitimately earned, given that Moore's perennially successful Big 12 program had just defeated an SEC team on the road (Georgia) in a super regional for the second time in four seasons.
It turns out his timing could have been better.
Much to the chagrin of those who grow weary of what they perceive as softball's nouveau riche Clampetts and the attention those newcomers receive, Sunday's semifinals will feature a pair of SEC teams just one win away from the championship series, after No. 5 Florida upset No. 1 Oregon 4-0 and No. 2 Alabama beat No. 14 Kentucky 2-0 on a game-ending double play with the bases loaded.
It's the first time since 2004 -- when the event still deserved its unofficial nickname, "Pac-12 tournament," and UCLA and California each opened with two wins and went on to play for the title -- that a single conference possesses such a stranglehold on the most direct route to championship round.
The rest of the field, meanwhile, is left to sort out which two teams (possibly including another from the SEC) will survive Saturday and try to win against a rested favorite twice on Sunday to reach the final.
The SEC was guaranteed one spot in Sunday's winners bracket by virtue of Alabama and Kentucky winning on the same side of the bracket on the opening day of play, but Florida had a job to do to claim the other spot. To open with two wins for just the second time in six appearances in Oklahoma City, the Gators had to get through the Ducks, who won a second consecutive Pac-12 championship on their way to earning the top overall seed and had yet to lose in the postseason.
That they did it by being Florida down to their DNA might be the strongest evidence of just how far this conference has come.
"They set a lofty goal, and each of our players needs to do her part," Florida coach Tim Walton said. "You just don't get to the postseason and get by. You have to figure out how to get better, if you can run more, get physically stronger and mentally tougher. I give them a ton of credit for buying in and being accountable. All 17 of the girls are doing their part to help the Gators win softball games."
A day after she earned a funnel cake from her coach for a double that drove in two runs in a big first inning en route to a run-rule rout against Baylor, Florida junior Bailey Castro was at it again, this time sans reward. She led off the top of the second inning and opened the scoring with a deep home run to center field.
"I got a good pitch, and I took a hack," Castro explained. "That's kind of my thing: I take hacks."
That turned out to be the only run the Gators needed behind another brilliant pitching performance from Hannah Rogers, but Castro added to the lead when she drove in the second run with a two-out single in the third inning. It wasn't a run-rule win, but against a pitcher as good as Oregon ace Cheridan Hawkins, it was plenty.
The Gators had been embarrassed, to use Walton's word for it, when they managed just two hits and one walk in seven innings in a loss to Georgia in the SEC tournament. They needed to do something to rediscover the kind of run production that was evident early in the season but missing for stretches later in the campaign. For Castro, among others, that came down to adopting a new timing mechanism and altered approach at the plate.
It worked. She has been next to impossible to keep off base in the NCAA tournament and never more than in the first two games. After three seasons of trying, she is beginning to realize the full extent of her potential.
"Bailey was a grip-and-rip type hitter when she got here," Walton said. "Every school in the SEC wanted her. She was this big, strong, elbow-up type hitter. We just had to get her comfortable, and really, the slap is brand new. She's just starting to go with it and had some success making contact. But I think, more than anything, it just calms her down in the box. She doesn't have to think about mechanics -- it's just timing."
A lot of things go into making Florida what it is. Good arms in the circle help, from former All-American Stacey Nelson to Rogers, who is pitching as well as she ever has. Defense is part of it too: The group that entered the WCWS with just 36 errors in 62 games has been errorless and essentially flawless.
But hitting is Walton's bread and butter. He recruits hitters, and he develops hitters, not by trying to fit them into a predetermined mold but by working with what they bring to the table and making it better. As with Castro, he will eventually unlock it more times than not.
One of the best in program history, former All-American Francesca Enea, had one of the most distinctive swings in recent memory. A long strider, she often finished the swing with one knee scraping the dirt, like a telemark skier making a turn. Almost as often, the end result was that the ball sailed over or off the fence. In the stands Friday, Enea said Walton worked with her on shortening the stride, only for both to realize it took away what made her one of college softball's most feared power hitters. So instead, they worked with the stride.
"He wouldn't try to get everyone to be in a certain style," Enea said. "He would see what everyone's strengths were and what everyone's weaknesses were and work around that." That built Florida into a program that could get to Oklahoma City, twice advancing as far as the final series. But it hasn't produced a title.
Walton called this the loosest team he's had during his time in Gainesville, as the funnel cake fixation might suggest. It seems equally apt to suggest this might be the most secure version of the coach we've seen. The Gators aren't trying to prove they're the best team. They're just playing like it.
From the coach on down.
"I think he's really grown up and figured out the type of coach he wants to be and realized he doesn't have to put so much pressure on himself to be a certain way," Enea said. "He can be a little bit more relaxed. It's kind of like how it is with a player: If you go up there trying to be somebody you're not in a big moment like this, you're not going to succeed as well as you would just playing your game."
When Florida suffered through a March swoon that dropped it out of the SEC championship race and raised questions about its long-term potential, Walton's wife had a suggestion.
Lock them out.
Walton had done it before. So frustrated with the manner in which one of his earlier Florida teams was going about its business, he locked players out of the locker room until they earned their way back in. That group ultimately made the World Series, hence the suggestion from his spouse to send the same message to the current roster.
"I'm not locking this team out -- I like this team," Walton responded. "They're not doing anything wrong. We're just not good enough right now."
They are good enough now. So is the SEC.
As a high schooler in the Los Angeles area, Enea, who graduated in 2006, played travel ball for the Orange County Batbusters, one of the sport's legendary youth programs. As teammates talked about how excited they were to be going to Pac-12 powers such as Arizona and UCLA, they would add -- almost as an afterthought -- that Florida was a great choice for her.
"It was such an insulting way of thinking," Enea said. "But I remember feeling it was the right decision to make and something good can come out of it. To see how highly people think of the SEC now is very rewarding, and to think that back in 2005, when I was still in high school, nobody even thought twice about the SEC."
The tournament is now in the SEC's hands. One or both of Florida and Alabama might yet bobble it and give the rest of the country the last laugh, but for now, the road to a championship runs through the South.