Florida softball overcomes bad weather and Georgia Tech to reach NCAA regional title game

Graham Hall
Gator Sports

The Florida softball program is accustomed to the schedule fluctuating due to the weather, especially during the mid-May portion of the season when rainfall in Gainesville is a common occurrence. Saturday’s contest with Georgia Tech in Game 2 of the NCAA Regional was no exception. 

The No. 14-ranked Gators (45-16) secured a 7-1 win over the Yellow Jackets following two weather delays stretching a combined three hours and 54 minutes, sending Florida into Sunday’s NCAA regional championship at 12:30 p.m. 

“We all saw the weather forecast this week, we knew it was gonna be a tough weekend,” Florida coach Tim Walton said, “just with the way the weather was building all week long, but give our players credit. I thought they did a really good job.”

With consecutive wins to open NCAA Regional play, the Gators await word of their opponent in Sunday’s finale at 12:30 p.m. Georgia Tech faces the winner of the elimination battle between Canisius and Wisconsin at 10 a.m. Sunday. Canisius and Wisconsin were playing late Saturday night; the delays meant the scheduled three games couldn't be completed. 

First game:Florida Gators softball open NCAA regionals with win over Canisius at Gainesville regional

Show of support:Canisius softball team represents Buffalo Strong at NCAA softball tournament in Gainesville

Senior Day:Florida Gators softball honoring four seniors during series vs. Arkansas

Gators jump ahead early

Though it may have been a far cry from Florida’s 10-1 victory over Canisius, it didn’t result in a less-dominant performance by the host team.

As they did in Friday’s regional opener against Canisius, the Gators took a first-inning lead as Reagan Walsh’s double with two outs and a full count brought a pair of runs across the plate.

After a scoreless second inning for both teams, Georgia Tech, following the initial weather delay lasting two hours and 52 minutes, got on the scoreboard in the bottom of the third inning when Tricia Awald doubled to left-center field to score Bailee Zeitler, though the Yellow Jackets (38-17) would leave the tying run on base. 

UF’s two-run lead was reinstated when Walsh, once again facing a full count at the plate, hit a single to shallow right field in the bottom of the third inning, which scored Skylar Wallace from second. 

“We’ve been swinging the bat well, especially runners in scoring position,” Walton said, “finding ways to score with one out, two outs.”

Cheyenne Lindsey followed Walsh’s single with one of her own, sending Wallace to second, but the Gators couldn’t plate any additional runs in the third inning as Katie Kistler hit a line drive in the direction of Georgia Tech shortstop Jin Sileo. 

In the ensuing frame, Hannah Adams’ steal of second resulted in a wild pitch by Yellow Jackets catcher Blake Neleman, which allowed Kendra Falby to score an unearned run from third. 

Wallace pushed UF’s lead to 5-1 with an RBI single, and by then the inclement weather had returned overhead, forcing the two teams to retreat to their respective dugouts as the tarp was rolled out over the ballfield dirt.

“Just thanks to our grounds crew, I thought they did a great job,” Walton said. “Obviously working really hard to make the field was safe and playable, and it was outstanding.”

Following the second weather delay, the Gators loaded the bases with no outs, setting up a walk-off opportunity, but pinch hitter Cali Decke reached on a fielder’s choice rather than securing the run-rule victory. Instead, Florida would plate a pair of runs before the conclusion of the fifth inning, giving the Gators a 7-1 lead heading into the sixth inning.

Rylee Trlicek, who replaced Elizabeth Hightower on the mound to begin the sixth inning, allowed two hits in the top of the seventh, and Walton opted to bring Natalie Lugo on to close a game that had commenced nearly seven hours prior. 

“On paper, it says that game was two hours and 23 minutes,” Walton said. “I’m not buying it.”

Here are three takeaways from Saturday’s contest.

Elizabeth Hightower gets win No. 17 for Gators

In her team-high 33rd appearance of the season, UF starting pitcher Elizabeth Hightower allowed just two hits across five innings in securing her 17th win of the year.

Despite the elements, Hightower appeared to improve as the night went on, and she confirmed as much at the conclusion of the contest. Rather than let the rainfall hinder her command, Hightower was just getting into a groove as the second delay arrived. 

“If anything, I felt like I competed better towards the end, like before the rain delay, the second one happened,” Hightower said. “I had two quick innings before that, and I was really feeling it. I just felt like I competed better, I had a better composure out there for those last two.”

Reagan Walsh’s clutch hitting

Critical sequences often determine the contest, and freshman Reagan Walsh managed to lead UF in several important situations at the plate. 

It was Walsh who gave the Gators a two-run lead in the first inning, and the Redondo Beach, California, native again stepped up in the third inning, adding her third RBI in as many innings. 

Not bad for a freshman making her NCAA Tournament debut. 

“Reagan had another outstanding day for us,” Walton said. “She’s had a really good postseason so far. I’m just really happy and proud of how our team keeps on grinding.”

Gators again overcome the elements

Following Florida’s defeat of Canisius, Walton made a joke while discussing the 57-minute delay, saying he considered getting a mid-game workout by hitting the treadmill.

With the forecast calling for a dreary afternoon in Gainesville, Walton made sure to make time for personal fitness before arriving at the stadium.

“Of course I didn’t get it done yesterday, and today I got it done early and then we have a long delay,” Walton said. “So today was more of a can’t win no matter what you do.”

The change to the itinerary meant Walton wasn’t exactly eager to stay up viewing the matchup between Canisius and Wisconsin. 

“I can watch the highlight, and we already scout-prepped before, so it doesn’t really matter who plays who and who does what,” he said. “No matter what happens today, somebody has to beat us twice tomorrow, and we’ll figure who that is when I get up.”