Gator, Sooner Softball Impressive in Opening Weekend

Gator, Sooner Softball Impressive in Opening Weekend

Winning the NCAA Division I national softball championship is quite an accomplishment to say the least. But repeating as national champion is a daunting task. In fact, in recent years only one team, Arizona, has repeated as national champion, winning in 2006-2007. In earlier years, either Arizona or UCLA won the national title. But in the last decade, the level of competition overall has gotten better and there is much better parity in college softball than ever before. Thus, it makes it even more of an accomplishment to repeat as national title.

Alabama won in 2012, but failed to repeat in 2013 as Oklahoma, which had lost to the Crimson Tide a year earlier, came back with revenge and won the 2013 title. The title was the second for the Sooners but they too failed to repeat. In 2014, Florida won the national softball crown in impressive fashion and is seeking to become the first team since Arizona to win back-to-back titles. Winning the national title guarantees the team has a target on its back all season with opponents hoping to upset the reigning national champion. If there's a reason to get up for a game, that is one of them. Teams would love to say they defeated the current national champ.

Florida lead-off hitter and All-American Kelsey Stewart understands that and said, "They'll say we have a target on our back because we're No. 1.  But we're the Gators. We always have a target on our back.” It may be a little bigger target as the Gators accept the challenge of chasing a repeat.

And if their opening weekend is any indication of how the Gators have accepted the challenge, then it could be a long season for the Gator opponents. Maintaining the consistency on the field along with the mental toughness that keyed last year's national championship is paramount if the Gators are to repeat.

In their opening weekend of play, the Gators won five consecutive games and outscored the opposition 46-6, while collecting 44 hits. After opening with a 17-0 run-rule of Hampton, the Gators won their second game of the season 2-1 with a run in the seventh to nip 8th ranked Michigan. The Gators took a 1-0 lead before Michigan tied it at one-one in the top of the seventh before the Gators won it in the bottom half of the winning on a wild pitch by losing pitcher Haylie Wagner, who hurled 6 2/3 innings to get her first loss in the Michigan season opener.

The Gators then disposed of Illinois State 8-0 in five innings to finish Saturday's competition. On Sunday, Florida defeated Jacksonville 9-0 in five innings before falling behind in the second game to USF. The Gators trailed 4-2 before exploding for eight runs in the top of the seventh to put the game away and finish the weekend unbeaten.

Florida coach Tim Walton was pleased with how the Gators didn't buckle when they fell behind early against USF. “They’ve been doing that since I’ve been here” said Walton. “It’s just what we do. It goes to the mentality of what we do in offseason training. If there are any outs left in the game, we’re going to fight to the end. It doesn’t matter the score or the situation. We’ve just got to get runners on base and get to the next batter. That’s a mentality – it’s something we have to practice. It’s not something you can wake up and decide you’re going to do. It’s something that we train hard at, to be tough outs [and] tough competitors. You’ve got to get us out 21 times to win the game.”

Florida wasn't the only team to finish the weekend unbeaten in impressive fashion. Joining the Gators is the University of Oklahoma. The Sooners also went 5-0 while playing in Honolulu, Hawaii, outscoring the opposition 52-5 and collecting 52 hits. This was the second time the Sooners opened the season in Hawaii. The first was in 2009 when they went 4-1.

The weekend was highlighted by outstanding pitching (19 hits allowed and five runs scored) and the power hitting of Lauren Chamblerlain, who sometime during the season will become the NCAA career home run leader. She now has a team-best three home runs on the year and 75 in her career. Her career total has her tied with Ball State’s Jennifer Gilbert (2011-14) for eighth on the all-time list and she is just 15 away from tying the all-time Division I home run record of 90 set by UCLA’s Stacey Nuveman, whose career spanned from 1997-02.

Chamberlain finished the weekend batting .500 (6-for-12), driving in 12 runs and walking 11 times. She figures to get walked a lot this season because opponents know what a dangerous hitter she is, especially in clutch situations. Two of the three homers Chamberlain hit came in a 17-0 run-rule win over St. Mary's. She had a three-run shot in the third and a grand slam in the fourth. She ended up with a career high seven RBIs and it was the 15th multi-homer game of her career.

The pitching was highlighted by freshman Paige Parker and senior Shelby Pendley. Pendley also plays third when not pitching and, along with Chamberlain, form the most potent tandem in college softball. The two entered the season with 132 career homers between them and increased that total as Chamberlain hit three and Pendley one in the opening five games. Parker won two games and collected a save and is yet to allow a run in 11.2 innings. One of her wins was a perfect game against Hawaii to conclude the weekend. It was the ninth perfect game in the history of OU softball. Pendley collected the other three wins and, in 11 2/3 innings, allowed seven hits and three walks while striking out 13. She also batted .313 (5-for-16), driving in five runs.