'Show me what you can do': Florida softball looks to keep streak going in Super Regional
The opportunity has been served to the Florida Gators softball team.
After breezing through the Gainesville NCAA regional — beating opponents by a combined score of 28-2 — the Gators now head north where they'll take on the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Blacksburg, Va., Super Regional.
Florida head coach Tim Walton has told his team time and time again this season: "Don't tell me what you can't do, show me what you can do."
And if there was ever an opportunity for the Gators to do that, it's this weekend against the Hokies. Florida and Virginia Tech will play a three-game series, if necessary, that spans from Friday to Sunday. Friday's game is at 2 p.m. (ESPN2) and Saturday at noon (ESPN).
The winner will secure one of eight spots in the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City.
With so much on the line, here are three things to watch in this weekend's Super Regional matchup.
Gators' speed could make a difference
As we've seen all season, there's no shortage of speed in Florida's lineup.
Arkansas head coach Courtney Diefel said it best when she and the Razorbacks came to Gainesville for the SEC tournament two weeks ago.
"It was a big focal point to try to keep their speed off the bases," Arkansas head coach Courtney Deifel said. "Because they can absolutely create havoc."
Last weekend against Wisconsin, Florida had three different players put down bunts and safely reach first base, which opens up a new dimension the Gators can threaten with on offense.
Ironically, it hasn't been the players that teams expect to put bunts down that have been capitalizing on the small ball.
The last few times that Florida freshman Kendra Falby has come up to bat, the infield has shortened up, expecting the bunt. Instead, Falby has sent hoppers over the heads of third basemen.
Once on the base path, the job gets no easier for opponents.
In the Gators' last game, they tied the single-season stolen base record at 129 stolen bases this season. UF junior Skylar Wallace leads the charge with the program's individual single-season record with 50 steals.
As a team, the Gators are wildly efficient on the bases, having succeeded in 89% of their stolen base attempts.
Will offensive hot streak continue for Florida?
When the postseason arrives, everyone likes to ask the question of a team "peaking at the right time". Florida's lineup has left little question that it's finding its groove at the perfect time in the season.
Last weekend's 35 hits were the most the Gators have scattered in a weekend all season. The week prior, Florida's 24 hits in the SEC tournament were the most the lineup had hit in a three-game SEC series all year.
The Gators' offense is peaking at the right time.
Florida freshman Reagan Walsh has been a huge component of the Gators' recent production. After an up-and-down regular season, Walsh has seemingly found her stride after going 10-for-18 in the last six games and 5-for-8 in her first ever NCAA regional.
"I thought Reagan Walsh in the SEC tournament, in regionals... she's just has a phenomenal run for us," Walton said. "It's just one more bat."
Meanwhile, Falby, Wallace and fifth-year Hannah Adams continue to ignite the offense, batting in the one-, two- and three-holes. Together, the trio combined for a 18-for-30 performance last weekend, plus three walks.
Even through the heart of the order and down the back half, players are beginning to add production.
Sophomore Katie Kistler, who has hit in the seven spot, went 3-for-6 in regionals, driving in three RBIs.
"It's been pretty fun to see how much the lineup is just stretching and stretching and stretching," Walton said. "The confidence is growing."
However, the task gets more difficult for the Gators' lineup this weekend as they face a talented Hokies bullpen, which features senior Keely Rochard and freshman Emma Lemley.
Rochard and Lemley both boast ERAs of less than 2.0, while Rochard has tossed an unbelievable 321 strikeouts — just 31 fewer than UF's entire pitching staff.
Can Florida's bullpen crank it up a notch?
Unlike what Virginia Tech has in Rochard, the Gators don't have a pitcher that's going to blow a pitch by you.
Instead, the Gators will pitch for contact and rely on the defense behind them. That strategy, of course, only works if the ball is kept in play.
Senior Elizabeth Hightower and freshman Lexie Delbrey, the Gators' main pitching tandem, have allowed 23 balls to leave the yard this season. Relative to the 30 home runs that Rochard and Lemley have given up, UF's 23 isn't an awful mark.
Instead, the walks he Gators have given up stand is what stands between them and great success from the circle.
Hightower and Delbrey have given up a combined 128 walks, 31 more than the Hokies' main tandem.
Florida is entering a sold-out, hostile environment this weekend and the Gators' bullpen will have to be even-keeled, especially going against a lineup that averages .316 as a team and has 63 home runs.