If Florida is to accomplish something done only once before in college softball, it must first do something a No. 1 seed hasn't had to do in more than a decade of super regionals.
In order to equal UCLA's record of three consecutive national titles, Florida must first come back from the brink and win the final two games of a super regional against No. 16 Georgia, after the underdog opened the two-day, best-of-three series in Gainesville, Florida, with a 3-0 win on Thursday.
It is an unprecedented challenge for the Gators. It is also an unprecedented opportunity for the Bulldogs, who became the first team to win the opening game of a super regional against the No. 1 seed since the round was added to the tournament in 2005. (Hawaii is the only team to eliminate the top seed in a super regional, but it lost the opening game at Alabama in 2010.)
It is a chance that Georgia earned by following a script that worked well for its opponent en route to national championships the past two seasons: Give the ball to a senior pitcher throwing the ball as well as she ever has, and get out of the way.
It worked for Florida with Hannah Rogers in 2014. It worked with the Gators' Lauren Haeger in 2015.
And at least for a night, it worked for Georgia's Chelsea Wilkinson in 2016.
Coming off a regional performance in which she allowed just seven hits and one earned run in 17 innings and struck out 26 without a walk, Wilkinson became just the second pitcher to shut out the Gators this season. And there was something telling about how both of those occurred. In April, Alabama's Sydney Littlejohn struck out just two batters but blanked the Gators all the same. That is the same number of strikeouts Wilkinson totaled during Thursday night's contest.
Give the Gators that much contact in seasons past and some of those balls were going over the fence -- or at least solidly into the gaps. That hasn't always been the case this season, as a night spent mishitting Wilkinson's commanding spin underscored.
Even if Georgia's Maeve McGuire added some more just to be safe, finishing with three hits and two RBIs, one big hit provided all the runs the Bulldogs needed on this night.
That's a familiar story in Gainesville. It just isn't the visiting team telling it most of the time.
Meanwhile, it took a year to get there, but Paige Parker is finally back for her mulligan after No. 3 Oklahoma beat No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette 8-2 in the opening game of the Norman super regional.
Parker was sensational for the Sooners a season ago, and she was no less than that for most of a super regional at Alabama. But one pitch out of 316 thrown that weekend got away from her, and the resulting grand slam sent the Crimson Tide to the World Series. Now Parker and the Sooners are once again one win from their own trip up the interstate to Oklahoma City.
Player of the day
It could be Wilkinson or McGuire, to be sure, but we haven't spent much time on the events in Norman, which means we haven't given Oklahoma's Fale Aviu her due.
While the first run in the night's other game loomed large, the home run Louisiana-Lafayette's Haley Hayden hit to lead off the game against Oklahoma ended up being an afterthought for a team that had been 39-0 when scoring first. That's because the Sooners wasted little time first erasing the deficit, courtesy of Aviu's RBI hit in the bottom of the first inning, and then taking control of the game, highlighted by Aviu's two-out, two-run double in the second inning that extended her team's lead to 5-1.
Highlight of the day
Florida's lone extra-base hit against Georgia went for naught when Kirsti Merritt was stranded at second base after a two-out double in the bottom of the third inning. But that hit could easily have brought home the game's first run, if not for Alex Hugo's intervention a batter earlier.
Just before Merritt drove the ball to the wall, the Gators appeared to benefit from an error when Bulldogs first baseman Tina Iosefa misplayed Kayli Kvistad's ground ball. But Hugo, sprinting on contact to cover the first base bag if Iosefa needed to make a throw, dove to stop the rolling ball and flipped it to Iosefa for the out. That meant Merritt had no runners on base to drive in.
Georgia eventually added two insurance runs for the final margin, so it can be argued the run Hugo saved didn't matter, but it could well have been a different game had the Gators been able to play from in front.
As mentioned, Florida is trying to do something unprecedented for a No. 1 seed. Better news for the Gators is that it is far from unprecedented in the larger context. Since the start of super regionals in 2005, 14 teams advanced by winning the final two games. Nine of the teams that did so were playing at home, most recently Alabama a year ago against Oklahoma and Florida State two years ago against Michigan (after losing the opening game 17-3).
With the same one-game cushion entering the final day of a regional, Georgia coach Lu Harris-Champer kept Wilkinson in reserve and then used her in the winner-take-all finale. That would be a more dangerous gambit on the road against Florida than at home against Oklahoma State.
That same comeback math isn't as kind to Louisiana-Lafayette, which will try to join Kentucky in 2014, Oregon in 2012, the aforementioned Hawaii team in 2010, Arizona in 2009 and Virginia Tech in 2008 as road teams to come back in a super regional after losing the opening game.
In addition to the conclusion of those two super regionals, openers will be played Friday between No. 6 Alabama and No. 11 Washington, No. 7 James Madison and No. 10 LSU, and No. 8 Florida State and Utah.