Gators, Tide share more than SEC

OKLAHOMA CITY -- As the college softball season came to a close two years ago, every program with championship aspirations hoped to stand where Alabama stood. None wanted to be in Florida's shoes.

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While she gave up three earned runs in the fifth after Florida took a 5-0 lead, Hannah Rogers didn't let Baylor pull off another astonishing comeback.

Those might be the two most difficult starting points from which to reach the stage the Crimson Tide and Gators will share beginning Monday night when they meet in the best-of-three championship round in the Women's College World Series after each avoided excess drama Sunday by winning the first of two potential chances to advance.

From the zenith of its 2012 national championship, Alabama had to recapture all that went into what is often described as a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a reason.

From the nadir of its fractured finish that same season, Florida had to reboot a culture.

So, yes, the two finalists share a conference affiliation as the first SEC teams to meet in the final round, guaranteeing the conference its second national championship, but their identities are more alike than that.

As much as any two teams, both know exactly how fleeting is the opportunity that now presents itself.

There are going to be a lot of Gators logos in ASA Hall of Fame Stadium on Monday. Whether adorning shirts, hats or even a fake Gator head, Cheesehead style, there were plenty on display Sunday and few still available at the souvenir stand on site.

Florida began the season as one of 293 Division I teams pursuing a championship. It is now one of two. That kind of thing tends to make people eager to claim a place in Gator Nation.

But there were no such identifiers to be seen when Taylore Fuller, Kirsti Merritt, Aubree Munro, Taylor Schwarz and Kelsey Stewart arrived in Gainesville as freshmen in the fall of 2012, joined by a sixth newcomer, transfer Stephanie Tofft. They joined a team asked to prove it deserved those things, newcomers and returnees alike.

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Taylor Schwarz gave Florida some breathing room against Baylor with a three-run double in the fifth inning.

Sunday, as if to underscore the transformation, those six players combined to drive in all six runs and score three in a 6-3 win that eliminated Baylor.

The end of the 2012 season marked the low ebb of coach Tim Walton's otherwise wildly successful time at Florida, and those who entered the program months later found themselves in the middle of the recovery.

"The program was coming off sort of an interesting end [to the previous season], so Coach really came in and he wanted us to really appreciate being a Gator," Munro said. "When we came in, we didn't have anything that said Florida, anything with a Gator head on it. We had a blank orange and blue T-shirt for practice."

An interesting end is a diplomatic way to put it. Shortly before the start of the 2012 tournament, Walton dismissed three starters from a team seeded fifth in the bracket, just as it is this season. At the time coming off four consecutive World Series appearances and two second-place finishes in three seasons, the Gators imploded. They crashed out of the postseason at home in a regional.

The remedy wasn't just about a logo or a school name on pieces of clothing. That next fall, players had to set up one-on-one meetings with each other to go to dinner or coffee and get to know each other. Not just those teammates from the same place or with whom they shared similar backgrounds or the same year in school. Everyone. At first, Munro said, it felt like an assignment. As time went on, players found themselves lingering longer than expected over those meals, too engrossed in conversation to bother with the clock.

"I want to be a part of Gator Nation," Munro recalled thinking at the time. "I didn't really feel quite a part of it yet, but looking back, it was the best thing coach could have ever done. We got so close with the opportunity to really get to know each other on a more personal level individually off the field. We all compete on the field, but we're totally different off the field sometimes. We're individuals. So getting to know each other that way was really good."

What did Munro learning the full extent of Lauren Haeger's coffee obsession two years ago have to do with Sunday's win? Or any of Florida's wins this week, for that matter? Good vibes didn't help Schwarz snap out of a funk at the plate with a two-out double in the fifth that cleared the bases and pushed her team in front by an insurmountable margin. Nor can good will toward all humankind claim credit for Katie Median's whip throw to complete a double play in the second or Tofft's point-blank diving snag on a line drive in the third, the kind of defense the Gators have played all week and all season.

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Pitcher Jaclyn Traina hugs Alabama teammate Haylie McCleney (in helmet) after McCleney's fifth-inning home run against Oregon.

Hannah Rogers certainly doesn't need to share too much credit with chemistry for another strong performance in the circle. She can share it with her defenders, maybe, but that's about leather more than lattes.

But maybe when blessed with that kind of individual talent, a team that enjoys its own company is a team that doesn't let a four-game midseason losing streak derail a season. Maybe a team that has brought funnel cakes and go-carts to the forefront of the World Series conversation is a team comfortable enough to retool batting approaches after a weak showing in the SEC tournament.

And the team didn't look a bit flustered when Baylor tried to reprise its comeback heroics of a night earlier by cutting Sunday's deficit to two runs in the fifth inning.

No, the Gators just went out the next inning and literally took a couple for the team, the game's final run scored courtesy of back-to-back hit-by-pitches that, as the rules allow, Merritt and Tofft made no effort to avoid.

That isn't all about the players who arrived two years ago. It's at least as much about Rogers, a senior who quietly leads by example as she rolls through the postseason, Bailey Castro, a junior who has been both funnel cake ringleader and reliable run producer, and the rest of the roster. But where the two previous Florida teams that made the final round were defined by large, personality-rich senior classes, this one seems to act most like its second-year players.

They won't be happy if they lose, but they aren't going to miss a chance to enjoy this until then.

"I have a lot of respect for our players, and I think they've bought in and they understand the workmanlike program we're going to run," Walton said. "We expect perfection in all areas. We expect them to be good and good people and learn how to turn the competitive juices off once the game is over, learn how to be friendly to your teammates, to be good friends to your teammates and to your opponents. And I think that's the part of the equation that I'm most proud about is that we can still go out there and compete, and compete in the right way."

If getting back to the top is difficult, staying there might be an even greater challenge.

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Haylie McCleney's home run to start the fifth inning was all Alabama needed, though the Tide picked up another run before the inning ended.

With a 2-0 win Sunday against top-seeded Oregon, Alabama became the fifth school to earn a place in the championship round within two seasons of winning a championship and the first to do so since Arizona won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007.

As if to underscore exactly how fine a line there is between making it to Monday and joining the other 291 reams that will watch, Oregon's Janelle Lindvall came within feet, if perhaps not inches, of tying the score in the seventh inning when she caught up with a Jaclyn Traina pitch out of the strike zone and drove it high, deep but ultimately foul down the left field line.

The game still would have been tied, and the Ducks still would have needed not just that win but also a second Sunday, but a different way for the day to play out flashed in front of nearly 9,000 pairs of eyes as the ball arced into the sky.

It took Alabama seven trips to the World Series to reach the final round and win the SEC's first title. And that may have been the easy part.

"I would have said it was harder to get to the first one, but now, I think it's even harder to get to the second one," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. "There is a huge target on our back."

Once a team wins a championship, it in some ways remains a champion forever, even as the players come and go. Just as Florida still has Rogers, the lone link to its second-place finish in 2011, Alabama still has Traina among a handful of holdovers from two seasons ago. And as she lights up the radar gun day after day here, it's clear that continuity in the circle is Alabama's single greatest asset. Had she been healthy a season ago, her lack thereof possibly related to her workload en route to the title, Alabama could have at least been back in Oklahoma City.

Yet in the past 11 days, freshman Peyton Grantham hit a walk-off home run in a super regional marathon against Nebraska and struck again with a three-run home run against Oklahoma. Leona Lafaele hit a two-run home run for the only runs in a win here against Kentucky. And Haylie McCleney hit a home run Sunday off Cheridan Hawkins for the only run the Crimson Tide ultimately needed (the controversial second run on a close play at the plate notwithstanding).

None of those players were around in 2012. They are just expected to play like they were.

"I think we're hitting on all cylinders," Murphy said. "In this tournament alone, and at super regionals, we've had a different hero every night. ... That's the greatest thing about this team -- one through nine, or anybody on the bench, can come through in the clutch. It's been Leona, it's been Peyton, it's been Marisa Runyon, it's been Jackie, it's been Haylie. That's why it's so much fun to coach this team."

Alabama didn't beat Oregon because it had better chemistry, any more than Florida had better chemistry than the Baylor team that stuck together for the largest rally in World Series history a night earlier. Both SEC teams are here because they have the talent, made the plays and caught the breaks along the way.

But it is hard to get to Monday night in college softball. It has never been harder. And despite coming from very different places two seasons ago, Florida and Alabama suggest a team has to understand itself for any of the rest to matter.

"I don't think it's hard to find because I think that we do have that kind of special bond between us," Alabama senior Kaila Hunt said of trying to duplicate what a different collection of individuals forged two years ago. "I think that this team reminds me a lot of that 2012 team, the way that we support each other and the way that we are happy for each other. It really does kind of mimic the team that we had back then."

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