Florida softball bites back, avenges series loss to Kentucky in SEC Tournament

Ainslie Lee
The Gainesville Sun

The 21st-ranked Kentucky Wildcats might've taken the series from 18th-ranked Florida last weekend, but the Gators bit back Thursday afternoon, with a 6-2 victory in the first round of the SEC softball tournament at Arkansas' Bogle Field.

Much like last year's SEC Tournament, which was hosted in Gainesville, the first round didn't get off without a hitch. The first game of the day required three extra innings and the second was put in a weather delay as South Carolina and Texas A&M found themselves in an extra-inning battle of their own.

Because the delay stretched over four hours, the eighth-seeded Gators and ninth-seeded Wildcats, who were initially slated to meet Wednesday night at 7, had their game rescheduled for Thursday morning at 11.

And for Florida, it was worth the wait as the Gators secured a date with top-seeded Tennessee in the tournament quarterfinals Friday morning.

'Phase 3':Florida Gators softball turns attention to postseason, SEC Tournament

Final from Lexington:No. 16 Florida edged by No. 23 Kentucky in tightly contested series

Here's how the Gators did it against the 'Cats.

Nothing comes free against Florida's pitchers

Florida's pitching staff has been far too generous all season, giving up walks. Coming into the SEC Tournament, the Gators bullpen gave up an average of 3.5 free passes per game; their pitchers issued 150 walks and hit 39 batters. Florida head coach Tim Walton referred to it as "self-induced trauma."

However, on Thursday, fifth-year senior Elizabeth Hightower took the circle with a lot of control. She worked through four innings, giving up six hits and two earned runs − both coming in one swing as Meeko Harrison homered in the top of the fourth inning to give the Wildcats a 2-1 lead.

Most importantly? Hightower didn't walk or hit a single batter.

Walton also pulled the plug on his starter at an appropriate time, calling upon left-handed senior Rylee Trlicek to start the fifth, just as Kentucky was turning over its lineup for the third time of the afternoon.

Trlicek finished off the game with a scoreless three-inning outing that saw her give up two hits and one walk.

Gators' lineup capitalizes on long game and small ball

Florida drew first blood as redshirt junior Skylar Wallace drew a leadoff walk, advanced to second on a passed ball and found herself standing on third after sophomore Kendra Falby grounded out.

Batting in the 3 hole was fifth-year senior Charla Echols, who notched her 62nd RBI of the season with a sac fly that drove home Wallace, giving Florida a one-run lead that held up until Harrison's home run.

Fortunately for Florida, it boasts a lineup that can change the game in one swing.

Immediately after coughing up the lead in the fourth, freshman Kaila Pollard, who is still working her way back from an injury, smacked a one-out, two-strike solo home run to knot the game at 2.

"It was a pretty cool moment to see that kid hit a home run here in the SEC Tournament," Walton said of Pollard, who will still be day-to-day.

"Really proud of her. She got my game ball today for the player of the game. There was no hit bigger than that opposite-field home run to come back 2-2 to get the confidence back and the momentum back in our dugout."

Trlicek forced the top of Kentucky's lineup down in order, bringing the Gators back to bat. And as fate would have it, the top of Florida's order was due up, meaning it was Wallace's turn to retake the plate.

Eying a 2-1 count, Wallace struck an offering from Stephanie Schoonover and sent it beyond the right-centerfield wall, good for her 19th home run of the season and a 3-2 Florida lead.

The Gators had added another pair of runs as sophomore Reagan Walsh and graduate transfer Pal Egan each scratched across runs for a 5-2 lead. The Gators' final insurance run came in the bottom of the sixth when Echols drove home Wallace with a hit.

On the day, Florida's situational hitting looked improved. The Gators went 4-for-13 with runners on base, while Kentucky went 1-for-13 in the same scenario. The Gators did, however, strand seven − including a no-out bases-loaded opportunity in the third inning.

Florida set to tussle with No. 1 Tennessee Friday

Florida appeared loose in Thursday's win over Kentucky.

Due to the Gators' conference struggles in the regular season, Florida didn't enter the SEC Tournament feared. Instead of playing as if they have everything to lose, the Gators are playing as if they have everything to win.

"We have more losses this year than we've probably had in quite a while," Walton said. "I've handled it fine. The players have really done a good job getting better and embracing the adversity of the game, embraced working hard. ... They've done a really good job of just controlling what you can control and be just level-headed."

A solid run in the SEC Tournament would help bolster the Gators as they continue to hunt for an opportunity to host a regional in the NCAA Tournament.

Next in line for Florida is Tennessee, the top-seeded team in the tournament and No. 4 team in the country. The Lady Vols are also the only ones to have swept the Gators in the regular season.

"For us, there's a lot to play for," Walton said following the win over Kentucky. "We've slid out of the top 15 at least and with a win like Tennessee, what does that do for our resume?"

"Beating Tennessee, that's a resume-builder. We've got a lot to play for. And you can kinda tell by the energy our team played with there today that they want to keep playing."