Answering the call: Gators have turned up intensity since Barnhill’s pledge

Florida ace Kelly Barnhill and the Gators are ready to face the Vols in the Gainesville Super Regional at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium. [Cyndi Chambers/Gainesville Sun Correspondent]

It may not be up there with the Tim Tebow pledge, but Kelly Barnhill put herself out there a couple of weeks ago with a promise of her own.

And the aftermath has been scary good.

It was after the final regular season series of the year against Mississippi State, a series that the Bulldogs won and a series where Barnhill had given up nine runs in two losses.

In the player’s lounge after Florida had won the third game with Elizabeth Hightower throwing a shutout, Barnhill spoke to her teammates with passion and commitment.

“She told the team, ‘I’m sorry. I did not pitch very well at all this weekend. I’m going to do my best to keep our opponents from scoring runs,’” said Florida coach Tim Walton. “I think she answered her own call. She called herself out in front of the team and she backed it up.

“She has come full circle in leadership, full circle in accountability. It was a proud moment for me.”

Since that weekend when Florida was muddling along and finished at .500 in the SEC, Barnhill has been one of the most dominating pitchers in the country allowing only one run in six starts.

But all of that is old news tonight when the fifth-seeded Gators face 12th-seeded Tennessee in the Super Regionals at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.

It’s pretty routine stuff for Florida to be facing an SEC team in the Supers, but this had been a different Florida team, one that seemed to stumble every time it got things headed in the right direction.

But that has changed during an eight-game winning streak, and it’s not just Barnhill’s late resurgence.

“We set a standard at Florida and I’m the first one who will tell you I haven’t been happy all the time with the way we’ve played all season,” Walton said.

“I think this team finally found its identity. They’re comfortable. They’re not chasing shadows anymore. We get in this brand-new facility, there’s some shadows in the facility. You walk down the hallway and there are some great players.”

The two teams play tonight at 7 in the first of best-of-three series with the winner going to the Women’s College World Series.

While Florida has the home-field advantage, the Vols already took two out of three games from Florida on the first weekend of SEC play.

“They feel good about where they are at and we feel good about where we are at,” said senior Amanda Lorenz. “There aren’t a lot of moving parts. Everybody is pretty comfortable.”

Tennessee tied for second in the SEC and is playing in its seventh Super Regional in the last eight years.

“I think you draw confidence from the familiarity,” said Tennessee co-head coach Karen Weekly. “But we can’t rest on the fact that we won the series because when we started postseason, the first thing I told the kids is we are 0-0. There is nothing on the stats. Nobody has stats.”

True, but there is the 0.20 ERA that Barnhill has put up in her last six starts.

“I’ve been going out there with more intensity,” she said.

The Vols hit six homers off Barnhill in the first two games of that series back in the beginning of March. But that was then.

“They beat us,” Walton said. “They played better than we did. It matters, they played well but I don’t think it has too much to do with where we are now. I’m not sure about them but I know we are in a different place now.”

Gainesville Super Regional

(Best-of-3; x-if necessary)

Host school is home team for Game 1; visiting school is home team for Game 2; coin flip determines home team for Game 3

At Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium

Florida vs. Tennessee

Friday: Florida (47-15) vs. Tennessee (42-15), 7 p.m., ESPN2

Saturday: Florida vs. Tennessee, 6 p.m., ESPN

x-Sunday: Florida vs. Tennessee, 2 p.m., ESPNU

Tickets: Contact the Gator Ticket Office