If the top-seeded Florida softball team makes a deep run in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, coach Tim Walton said he’ll have the other 12 Southeastern Conference teams to thank for the preparation.
For the first time ever, all 13 SEC softball teams made the field of 64 for the NCAA Tournament, with eight teams hosting regionals this weekend. All 13 rank in the top 33 nationally in the RPI, the metric that measures a team’s winning percentage and strength of schedule.
“I think the big key is just how tough the league really was from top to bottom,” Walton said Sunday night in an interview on ESPN. “I think that parity has obviously not only settled in in our league, but overall nationally. I think all the coaches in our league did a wonderful job of preparing their teams.”
That parity didn’t stop the Gators (50-6) from claiming their third straight regular-season conference championship by going 20-3 against SEC teams. An impressive 15 of those 20 wins were shutouts.
But Florida fell flat in the SEC Tournament, its last tune-up before the NCAA Tournament, when it dropped its opener on Thursday to No. 8 seed Ole Miss, the eventual tournament champion, 2-0. The Gators became the first No. 1 seed in the history of the SEC Tournament to not advance past its first game.
All the damage came in the first inning.
First, it was 3B Aleshia Ocasio’s error — just her first of the season — on a ground ball that set up Ole Miss up with runners on first and second with no outs. Then, after left-hander Delanie Gourley got two quick outs that would have ended the inning had the error not occurred, Ole Miss DP Dylinn Stancil ripped a double to the right-field wall that scored the lone runs of the game.
“We came in to win,” Walton said after the game, “and [Ole Miss] came in to win better. I think you need to give a lot of credit to Ole Miss. Did they look like they were ready to play? Heck, yeah. They played better than we did.”
With the conference tournament loss behind them, the Gators are now gearing up to host the regional round of the NCAA Tournament for the 12th straight year under Walton. Florida has advanced out of the initial stage in nine of the last 11 seasons, including the last four years.
Florida hosts Oklahoma State, Florida International and Florida A&M for the three-day regional that begins Friday. The winner of the Gainesville Regional will be paired with the winning team from the Tuscaloosa, Ala., regional in next week’s Super Regional round for a spot in the Women’s College World Series.
Pitching staff chasing records
Florida’s production falls on the back of its pitching staff. The Gators’ quartet of Kelly Barnhill, Gourley, Ocasio and Katie Chronister leads the country in ERA (0.74) and is averaging a collective 10.4 strikeouts per 7 innings pitched, a mark that would rank 18th all-time in NCAA Division I softball history if the season ended today.
The Gators are also five total shutouts away from tying its school record of 39 set back in 2009, a mark that is tied for the 16th most in NCAA history.
Individually, Barnhill, a sophomore, has a chance to shatter three single-season Florida records: ERA (0.33; school record is 0.61), opponent batting average (.122; she already owns the school record at .140) and strikeouts per 7 innings (13.28; she already owns the school record at 10.79).
“They have a great bond,” Walton said of his pitching staff. “They all work very well together. They all complement each other very differently. … I really love the way our pitching staff competes, but the way they prepare and the way they learn from each other is second to none.”