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WCWS 2019: Ignore the score, Kelly Barnhill went out a winner in Oklahoma City

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kelly Barnhill jogged onto the field in the bottom of the fourth inning Saturday at the Women's College World Series. Infielders Hannah Adams and Jordan Matthews walked to the circle to greet her.

"I love you," Matthews said before the three embraced.

Barnhill took the ball and delivered her final strike.

Florida coach Tim Walton, who had sent his ace back onto the field for one final memory, jogged out and hugged his star. One by one, Barnhill's teammates did the same. Sunflower in her hair and gator on her cheek, Barnhill handed the ball to junior pitcher Katie Chronister and jogged off the field for the final time as a Florida Gator.

The fans stood to salute, but Barnhill had one more thing to do: She put her glove down on the grass and gave a final Gator chomp to the program's fans.

Hours earlier, 11 runs earlier, Barnhill had stepped into the circle to start the game against SEC rival Alabama intending to keep Florida in the tournament. But she gave up two three-run home runs in the first inning and was replaced after getting just two outs. Florida fell to Alabama 15-3, the second-largest margin of defeat by the Gators in the NCAA tournament.

Barnhill had started every game for the Gators since the second round of the SEC tournament, throwing 1,034 pitches in that span. On this night, she threw 30. It was the shortest outing for Barnhill since May 6, 2017, and just the second time in her career that she failed to pitch an entire inning.

Barnhill looked calm even as the game ran away from her. She didn't flinch as Kaylee Tow belted a three-run home run in the first inning. Her face remained stoic as she walked a batter and hit one more. Despite losing her grip on the game, she stood in the circle and fought. She got two batters to pop out, and it looked like maybe she could escape the first inning. Then Merris Schroder sent another three-run shot over the fence. And that was it.

With a win or a loss, the road for Kelly Barnhill in a Gators uniform was going to end at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium. And like every other trip to OKC, it ended too soon for her liking. When she was a sophomore, Florida advanced to the championship series, only to fall to Oklahoma. Barnhill gave up the game-winning home run to Shay Knighten to end a 17-inning, epic opening game. Last year, Barnhill looked dominant against UCLA, but a fourth-inning collapse began the Gators' crash out of the tournament.

This year brought more heartbreak. Against Oklahoma State, Barnhill gave up just two hits -- both were solo home runs to Cowgirls bat-flip artist Samantha Show.

The loss to Alabama Saturday evening means that Barnhill -- who owns the Florida records for strikeouts (1,208), strikeouts per seven innings pitched and opponent batting average -- will relinquish her Florida uniform without bringing a national championship to Gainesville. In her first two appearances in the Women's College World Series, Barnhill allowed zero runs. In the subsequent five appearances, she allowed 17 runs (12 ER) and eight homers.

"Other than winning the last game of the season, she's accomplished everything you'd expect someone like her to accomplish," Walton said. "She's won every award that there is."

The awards list for Barnhill is quite long. She took the softball world by storm her sophomore year, winning espnW Player of the Year, USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year, SEC Pitcher of the Year, the Honda Sports Award and the ESPY for Best Female Collegiate Athlete. She's a two-time NFCA First Team All-American and two-time SEC Pitcher of the Year.

She won none of those awards as a senior.

"All those outside expectations will overwhelm you if you let it," Barnhill said.

Barnhill decided to not play to anyone's expectations other than her own, and spent her last year at Florida focusing on other things in addition to her life in the circle. She used to be the first to practice and among the first to leave -- that's just how practice was structured. This fall, Walton had her spend time with other members of the infield after her pitching drills. They could talk softball, or not. They could drill together, or not.

"She's been going out of her way a lot more for her teammates," Walton said. "And what I've started to see is a lot more of her teammates are going out of their way for her. It's a special thing to see."

Barnhill will be remembered by fans for everything she accomplished in the circle. She might be remembered by some for the one thing she never was able to deliver. But Walton will remember all the times she stayed at the stadium to sign autographs and take pictures with young girls. He'll remember the good times, and how much Gator nation grew because of Kelly Barnhill.

"The impact that she's had is that no matter how good you are or what number you wear, at the end of the day, who you are as a person matters more than how many games you win for this program," Walton said.

If you ask Kelly Barnhill who she is, she'll tell you that she's more than softball. She likes to bake and decorate cakes, loves her two cats and reads a ton of books (particularly science fiction, fantasy and romance). She's a founding member of Florida's chapter of Alpha Phi.

"I play softball but that's not who I am," Barnhill said.

As a senior, it feels like each moment is a last. Every first of the season is the last first of a career, and every last moment has an air of finality. There's the last first practice, the last first pitch of the year, the last home game, the last SEC championship, the last trip to Oklahoma City.

Barnhill wasn't emotional about any of that. She didn't shed one tear after her last game at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium, a 2-1 extra-innings victory over Tennessee in super regionals. Even as her final outing unraveled, she betrayed very little emotion. After a trip to the locker room, she returned to the dugout to cheer on her teammates.

But as she walked off the field for the last time, her facade started to crack.

"It's a little heartbreaking that we didn't win a national championship," Barnhill said. "But the experiences and the teammates and the friends and the family we created will always have a place in my heart."