Finally, Florida finishes first
OKLAHOMA CITY -- A pitcher who wasn't pitching and the coach who didn't start her were the story when the second game of the best-of-three championship round in the Women's College World Series began.
The only story that really mattered when Hannah Rogers fielded the ball that ended the game was the one about the team that piled on top of her in celebration. The best team this season.
The most statistically dominant team throughout the NCAA tournament, Florida beat Alabama 6-3 to sweep the final series and win the first national championship in program history. At times the best team in the country during the regular season and at times a far cry from it, Florida didn't even need to be at its best Tuesday night to complete a postseason run that proved it deserved to dance with the trophy.
It clinched the championship with Rogers, who was named the World Series most outstanding player and who throughout the tournament put together one of the most impressive sustained postseason pitching performances of any championship ace in the past decade, watching from the dugout until the sixth inning.
The Gators won despite four errors in the first four innings, 10 percent of the total errors their otherwise brilliant defense committed in 67 games this season.
They got arguably the biggest out of their season, with two outs and the bases loaded with Crimson Tide in a game the Gators led by three runs in the fourth inning, on a pitch thrown by freshman Delanie Gourley, who was five batters into her first appearance in a game since the less stomach-churning surroundings of an NCAA tournament regional at home against Florida A&M.
In its own way, the less than perfect play proved just how much the team had separated itself from the field by June.
Of course, when outfielder Kirsti Merritt secured the first out of the seventh inning on a diving catch in center as good as any all week in Oklahoma City, there was a reminder what this team had at its disposal.
"This team actually set a goal to win a national championship," Florida coach Tim Walton said. "It's the first one we've ever talked about. ... This team actually felt like we had the parts and the pieces to do it. I'm so very proud, kind of gutsy, kind of bold. But just give [the players] the credit. I think they really did a good job of doing their part and taking the responsibility to be a good teammate, a good friend and, obviously, a good player."
How differently it could have gone.
About 45 minutes before first pitch, Rogers was among a handful of Florida players participating in a hacky-sack circle in front of the dugout, not where the starting pitcher would normally be so soon before first pitch. Confirmation came when the lineups were announced shortly thereafter. The player who had dominated the tournament to that point wouldn't start.
For a coach who had already seen his share of disappointments in the final round of the event, swept by Washington in 2009 and Arizona State in 2011, Walton took an enormous gamble by starting junior Lauren Haeger in place of Rogers. He then doubled down on the bet by replacing Haeger not with Rogers but with Gourley.
Walton said the plan all along was to start Haeger in the second game regardless of the outcome of the first game, because he was wary of giving the Crimson Tide a second consecutive look at Rogers.
"So we stuck with it," Walton continued. "I honestly didn't sleep very well last night. Not that I don't have any trust and faith in Lauren. I do. And Delanie, as well. But Hannah's just been on fire, and to take her out of this game and to throw the other two, I know it was gutsy and I know it was bold.
"We've talked all year long [that] we don't have a superstar on our team. We have a bunch of players who do their jobs. I think today was a tribute to that."
It might not have been former U.S. national soccer team coach Greg Ryan benching goalkeeper Hope Solo before a Women's World Cup semifinal in 2007, but it had all the ingredients to implode.
If Oklahoma took a calculated risk a season ago when it started Michelle Gascoigne instead of Keilani Ricketts with a lead in the championship series against Tennessee, this was a gamble.
As prolific as Florida was in the postseason, scoring more runs in the NCAA tournament than all but two champions in the past decade, it was not the Oklahoma offense of a season ago. It rode out peaks and valleys over the course of the season. It struggled for runs during a losing skid in late March and then again fell flat in the SEC tournament. And while Haeger posted good numbers as one of three pitchers who saw significant innings during the regular season, she didn't pitch at the same level this season that Gascoigne did a season ago, when the latter was among 10 finalists for national player of the year.
The move immediately looked like it had come back to haunt the Gators when Haeger gave up a run in the top of the first and narrowly escaped further damage against the Crimson Tide. But Florida senior Stephanie Tofft delivered a two-strike, two-out home run off Jaclyn Traina in the bottom of the first inning to tie it and Kirsti Merritt's three-run home run the following inning expanded the lead to 5-1 and put the game on a clear course toward a singular outcome.
"I told my team and I told Hannah, 'I'm just going to go as long and as hard as I can,' " Haeger said. "I knew I had two pitchers behind me that were going to shut everyone down, too. We've been swinging the bat well and for them to give me insurance in the bottom of the first, when I gave up a run in the first inning, was really great.
"When Coach Walton told me [about the start], it was a great feeling. It made me feel like he could trust me."
Every part of those early innings spoke to how Florida got to this point. Not in the literal sense of the games they won during the tournament -- those had a lot to do with Rogers, but in how the program got to a point where all it needed to push it over the top was an ace getting hot at the right time of year. Florida needed to become a program that didn't need to dominate to win.
And not unlike the team they defeated Tuesday and which won the SEC's first title two seasons ago, the Gators can once and for all know that they have stopped playing catch-up on the rest of the country.
There had already been 15 NCAA champions crowned before Florida played a softball game. UCLA won seven NCAA championships, not counting one that was vacated, before Florida won a softball game of any kind. It was a good program with eight seasons under its belt when Walton was hired in 2005, but good doesn't satisfy anyone in Gainesville, least of all athletic director Jeremy Foley, who hired a coach from Wichita State with as much baseball as softball in his background. The expectation was clear.
"The main thing was just the culture and creating a winning, consistent habit," Walton said of his challenge. "I'm a person that came from a tremendous routine-oriented program as a [baseball] player. And once you learn that, you come in and you instill that and then the expectation is kind of there. That was the big thing, just change the culture. We had some talent. We just didn't know how to close games out, they didn't know how to really battle and thrive under pressure."
They made it to the World Series within three seasons, the championship series within four. They won 70 games one season and set home run records. But each time they got close to a championship, there was a piece missing or some break that didn't go their way.
This team isn't the most star-studded Florida team ever assembled, but it may well be the one that fits together the best. It isn't full of stars, but it is full of parts. Hitters who extend pitch counts, as they did while striking out just once against Traina, and mix small and big ball. Pitchers who are capable when called upon and offer different looks. And fielders who, Tuesday's errors notwithstanding, save the team far more runs than they cost it.
Rogers ends her career tied with former California All-American Jolene Henderson for the 12th-most wins in NCAA Division I history. Only four pitchers with more wins also won national championships: Arizona's Alicia Hollowell, Washington's Danielle Lawrie, Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts and UCLA's Keira Goerl. It is heady company and it casts her legacy in a completely new light.
But it's almost as fitting that the senior who starred in the final game wasn't so much Rogers, who picked up the save with two innings of relief, as Tofft . A California native who played her first two seasons of college softball at Northern Illinois, not exactly a regular part of the championship discussion, she decided to transfer after her sophomore year and emailed Walton.
He needed bodies at the time and gave her a shot. She started at third base for two years. And not only did she hit the home run that dulled Alabama's momentum Tuesday night, she drove in six runs in five games during the World Series.
The same World Series she used to watch from her couch long after her college season ended each year. What she saw was not her softball reality.
"Not even close to being possible," Tofft said. "I never thought in a million years that I would end up at Florida, let alone in a national championship series. And getting to end our last game on a win is an amazing feeling. I don't think it's hit me yet that we won. I would not want to be with any other group of girls, any other coaching staff. I love our fans, everything."
Florida had the tournament's best player, but it was never a one-player team.
Just a championship team.