Stingy pitching staff big reason Florida is eyeing national title

Florida national player of the year Kelly Barnhill pitches Wednesday during a practice in Oklahoma City. Florida faces Texas A&M in the opening game of the Women's College World Series today at noon. [AP]

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OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — If top-seeded Florida is to win its third NCAA Division I Softball championship, it will depend on its pitching staff to get there. The Gators have the luxury of sending to the circle three pitchers who are the envy of most schools in the nation.

Kelly Barnhill (24-3), who on Tuesday night was named USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year, leads the country in earned-run average at 0.36, while senior Delanie Gourley (21-4) is fourth at 0.67 and Aleshia Ocasio (8-1) is seventh at 1.13. Only two others pitchers now at the Women’s College World Series make the top-10 list (6. Carley Hoover of LSU, 1.11 and 10. Megan Kleist of Oregon at 1.21).

Barnhill and Gourley give Florida a one-two punch that will make it difficult to knock the Gators off, with Ocasio waiting in the wings if needed.

“I’m really proud of our pitchers and proud of our pitching coach (Jennifer Rocha) and our pitching staff,” Florida coach Tim Walton said. “I’m just proud of our three pitchers. We wouldn’t be very good without Delanie Gourley, and I think everybody can agree to that. She’s been such a great competitor and a great leader and the face of Florida softball. Kelly doesn’t have an All-American in front of her name yet, but she will.”

Florida has struggled of late scoring runs. Look for Amanda Lorenz (.390) to continue her hot streak along with support from Kayli Kvistad (.387), Nicole DeWitt (.316) and Ocasio (.313).

“We have a lot of work to do to figure out how to win games in Oklahoma City, but there are a lot worse problems,” Walton said. “I’m proud of these guys for getting us through to the College World Series again.”

Florida national player of the year Kelly Barnhill pitches Wednesday during a practice in Oklahoma City. Florida faces Texas A&M in the opening game of the Women’s College World Series today at noon. [AP]
Barnhill and former Gator standout Lauren Haeger are now the only two Florida players to have earned the title of USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year. Also, Barnhill is the fourth Gator to win a player of the year award this season, as she joins Alex McMurty (gymnastics), Caeleb Dressel (men’s swimming) and KeAndre Bates (men’s track & field).

“It’s really amazing to be chosen for this award as just a sophomore,” Barnhill said. “There are so many amazing players out there and to be chosen at such a young age is really a special accomplishment.”

The Marietta, Ga., native has had a stellar sophomore campaign for the Gators. She also leads the nation in hits allowed per seven innings (2.74) and strikeouts per seven innings (13.4) while also ranking third in shutouts (12) and sixth overall in total strikeouts (333). The 333 strikeouts are the third most in a single season by a Gator pitcher – only trails Stacey Nelson’s (357 in 2009, and 363 in 2008).

“I’m just really proud of Kelly and the season she has had,” Walton said. “We started off the year talking about how having a better team leads to the opportunity of potentially winning more individual accolades. Kelly winning this award is an accomplishment for everyone on our team. We have a lot of pride and a great work ethic but I’m just so proud of Kelly embracing her roll head on and working really hard.”

Tori Vidales has posted a team-leading 17 home runs and ranks second with 46 RBIs for Texas A&M. Riley Sartain leads the Aggies with a .354 average and 48 RBI and ranks second on the team with 12 home runs this season. In the circle, Texas A&M holds a 1.88 ERA, led by Trinity Harrington (1.71 ERA) and Samantha Show (2.01 ERA).

The winner today will face the winner of No. 5 UCLA and No. 13 LSU.

Barnhill, Gourley and outfielder Amanda Lorenz were named National Fastpitch Coaches Association first-team All-Americans on Wednesday. Kayli Kvistad earned a spot on the third team.

“When we recruit, we talk to every potential student-athlete about one day winning a national championship, being an All-American and being an Academic All-American,” Walton said. “So this is a special day for Gators softball players past, present and future.”