Florida softball: Gators survive against Loyola Marymount, advance in Stanford Regional
Considering Tim Walton and the Florida Gators' softball team's familiarity with the postseason, they knew nothing would come easy when it came time to open their NCAA Tournament run Friday night against Loyola Marymount at the Stanford Regional in Palo Alto, Calif.
But to say the Gators expected to be put on the ropes by a West Coast Conference team that entered the night 27-20 would've likely been a stretch.
Yet, that's exactly what happened at Stanford's Boyd & Jill Smith Family Stadium as the Gators' 3-2 win over the Lions required seventh-inning heroics from Sarah Longley and Pal Egan.
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Here's how it happened.
Gators, Lions lock into pitcher's duel early
Walton didn't waver from what we've seen him do all season, which is start the most seasoned pitcher in fifth-year senior Elizabeth Hightower.
In her 28th start of the season, Hightower successfully kept Loyola Marymount's lineup quiet through the better part of the opening four innings, allowing two hits. Meanwhile, the Lions started junior Jenna Perez, who returned the favor and held the Gators to one hit through the first three innings.
Florida was first to scratch across a run in the bottom of the fourth as senior Charla Echols drew a leadoff walk and moved to second courtesy of a bunt from sophomore Sam Roe. More small ball would work the Gators' base runners around, paving the way for sophomore Kendra Falby to notch a RBI single and give Florida a 1-0 lead.
However, Loyola Marymount would jab right back in the top of the fifth with a solo home run from Gabby Villa and a RBI single by Izzy Jamgotchian, giving the Lions a 2-1 lead and sparking a pitching change for the Gators.
Again, not coming away from what he's done all season, Walton turned to senior lefty Rylee Trlicek to try and close the door on the Lions.
After Hightower's 4.1 innings of action that saw her give up five hits, two runs and strike out three, Trlicek was effective in polishing off Loyola Marymount's lineup. She kept the Lions hitless in 2.2 innings of relief while striking out four and not giving up a walk.
Unsung heroes lift Florida to walk-off win
If the Lions are one ones to look for moral victories in losses, they might find comfort in the fact that they kept Florida's redshirt junior Skylar Wallace from recording a hit Friday night − something just seven other opponents can say.
Considering Wallace is on the heels of being named the SEC's Player of the Year, as well as being named one of three finalists for USA Softball's Collegiate Player of the Year award, keeping her from recording a hit is notable. And if you're the Gators, it means someone else needs to step up.
Fortunately for UF, senior catcher Sarah Longley breathed some life back into the Gators as she led off the seventh with a game-tying solo home run.
Longley's shot was her seventh homr of the season and her only hit of the night after she struck out in her first trip to the plate.
The Gators continued to pass the bat following Longley's home run as sophomore Reagan Walsh and Echols each tallied singles, putting runners on first and second for Pal Egan with one out.
With two strikes against her, Egan chopped a RBI single that allowed Christina Wellen, who entered to run for Walsh, to score from second base and secure the 3-2 win.
Florida set to see Stanford in Saturday's winner's game
After Friday night's thriller, the Gators will look to stay in the win column on Saturday at 5 p.m., when they'll tussle with the ninth-ranked Cardinal, who topped Long Beach State 1-0 in Friday's late game.
Like Florida, Stanford's offense didn't have its best stuff with three hits and didn't score a run until the sixth inning.
Starting in the circle for Stanford on Friday was Alana Vawter, likely meaning the Gators will see the Cardinal's freshman phenom, NiJaree Canady, who boasts the nation's top ERA at 0.49.