Florida Gators Weekend Review: Softball makes Women's College World Series

@GatorZoneSBall

Florida's softball team scored the biggest win of its remarkable season on Sunday.

The Weekend Review runs down Florida's sporting successes and failures in the non-football, non-men's basketball, non-track sports on crowded fall and spring weekends. If you have a club sport or other note to include in the Weekend Review, hit @AlligatorArmy.

Softball finishes bounce back, makes Women's College World Series

By now, you know that Florida's softball team made the Women's College World Series with a Super Regional sweep of UAB over the weekend. But it bears repeating how much this Florida team has done in the last 12 months to rebound from the darkest day in the program's recent history.

When Cheyenne Coyle and Sami and Kasey Fagan decided to transfer after being dismissed by Tim Walton, they left the Gators looking like a team in need of a rebuilding year, instead of a team that would probably have been a top-five preseason squad. With those three players, Florida would return every starter except All-American Michelle Moultrie, and two All-American candidates in Sami Fagan and Coyle; without them, Florida turned into a team that had just four upperclassmen, with one (Stephanie Tofft) coming in as a transfer, and another (Ensley Gammel) serving mostly as a reserve.

And yet Florida's been very good, better than any Gators team since Stacey Nelson's reign as the queen of the mound, partly because those players left.

Coyle left a void at shortstop, but Katie Medina has been good enough defensively to shift over to short, allowing freshman Kelsey Stewart, an incredible table-setter (she has a .455 on-base percentage, and a school record 36 stolen bases this year) to establish herself at second base and take a spot in the lineup. Tofft has moved into Sami Fagan's old spot at third, where her power (18 doubles to lead Florida; 27 extra-base hits that are only second to Lauren Haeger's 30) has been an upgrade on Fagan's slap-hitting and speed. And while Kasey Fagan (.261/.301/.343 in 2012) and Gammel (.224/.313/.408) were weaker bats in an outfield anchored by Moultrie in 2012, freshmen Kirsti Merritt (.297/.474/.531, with 21 steals) and Briana Little (.258/.449/.570, and 10 homers) have teamed with steady senior Horton (.277/.426/.555, and 10 homers) to make Florida's outfield more balanced.

The result of that added pop, and better plate discipline that has gotten the Gators nearly 100 more walks than they had in 2012, has been more runs: While Florida's .285 team batting average is lower than its .292 average from 2012, the Gators have scored 422 runs in 64 games this year, and managed 315 in 61 last season, and are averaging 6.60 runs per game, almost a run and a half better than the 2012 team.

We can sit and argue until we're blue in the face about the chemistry of a team that apparently had huge headaches in 2012; the differences in how the players feel about each other are either strictly immeasurable, or seen best in the results on the field. But I don't think there's any argument that Florida's not a lot better this year, and partly because it was able to add more power, speed, and discipline to its lineup.

Florida may yet see the best of the three transfers, Coyle, at the Women's College World Series: Her Arizona State team is on the other side of the bracket, powered in part by her 20 homers and titanic .367/.518/.795 line, though it would only meet Florida in a championship series. Sami Fagan is likely to play well for perennial top-20 team Missouri when she is eligible in 2014. (SEC rules prohibit in-conference transfers from being immediately eligible, but softball transfers generally do not have to sit out a year.) Kasey Fagan might well do the same for Arkansas, a lesser team, when she becomes eligible.

But given the way last season ended, and the possibility that this season might culminate in a national championship, looking back on Florida's 2012 campaign has to be done with the knowledge that the Gators got a bit of a blessing in disguise.

Baseball makes NCAA Tournament

There's not a heck of a lot that can be said here that wasn't said Monday, when Florida's inclusion in the 2013 NCAA Tournament for baseball was announced. There's this, though: Florida's strength of schedule was its saving grace.

The Gators, despite having a team rife with unripened talent, packed their non-conference schedule with good teams, playing Big Ten champion Indiana, annual series with Florida State and Miami, and series against a good Florida Gulf Coast squad and a not-terrible Duke team. Florida's record was worse for wear because of that, with the Gators entering their first SEC series with an 8-10 mark, but its RPI was always high because of that tremendous strength of schedule, and strength of schedule was very important for the NCAA Selection Committee this year, enough so that Florida was apparently pretty solidly in the field despite a 29-28 record, while a 49-10 Campbell team was left out of it.

Florida's résumé isn't just strength of schedule, as we noted last week, and, indeed, a 7-11 record against the six regional hosts the Gators played series against in 2013 makes them look like a more dangerous No. 3 seed than most. But Florida got swept by FGCU, lost home series to Kentucky and Auburn, and lost a series to Georgia ... and still made it into the NCAA Tournament because of how many big-time teams it played, and how game it was in those tilts. This is one of the lessons of this year: When NCAA Selection Committees meet, they really will care deeply about how rigorous a team's schedule is.

Women's golf struggles at NCAA Championships

When last we checked on Florida's women's golf team, the Gators had reason to be optimistic about their chances at the 2013 NCAA Championships after a strong Regional performance. That optimism was defeated repeatedly last week.

Florida failed to card a single round at par or better and failed to go lower than 298 as a team at the NCAA Championships in Athens, Georgia, where four straight rounds between 298 and 305 got the Gators a 17th-place finish in a field of 24 teams.

Senior Mia Piccio didn't fire a single round over 75, and finished tied for 37th at 10-over in her last outing as a Gator, while Camilla Hedberg tied for 50th at 13-over, but this was, more or less, a lackluster performance from a team that had struggled to go low for much of the spring. Florida was never really in contention — it shared that fate with 23 other teams, as USC shot four rounds of par or better en route to a staggering 19-under performance for the week and a 21-shot victory over Duke — but it fought back from dead last entering Friday's final round to post a 303, one of the better scores of the day.

The future's still bright for Florida, which won three events in Emily Bastel's first season as coach and loses just Piccio and Isabelle Lendl, who did not travel to the Championships, from this squad. The silver linings were just hard to make out last week.

Tennis teams' seasons end

Florida's women's tennis team had its bid for a three-peat thwarted by eventual national champion Stanford early last week. The men's and women's teams also weren't able to add much in their play in the individual portions of the NCAA Championships in Champaign, Illinois.

The most surprising Gators exit from NCAA play was No. 1 singles player Lauren Embree's first-round loss to Arizona State's Jacqueline Cako, who scored a 6-3, 6-2 win over the ITA National Senior Player of the Year. Coupled with Embree's stunning 6-0, 6-1 loss to Nicole Gibbs in Florida's match against Stanford and her round of 16 loss with Sofie Oyen in doubles competition, Embree's last calendar week as a Gator saw her go 1-2 in singles play and 2-2 in doubles. That's not nearly enough to overshadow the incredible highs of Embree's career full of championships, but it'll certainly frustrate her for a while to come.

Embree wasn't alone in making a swift exit from singles play: Both Oyen and Alexandra Cercone also lost their first-round matches, while Stephane Piro, the lone Florida men's player to make the singles tournament, lost in his first-round match. Piro and Bob van Overbeek would eventually earn All-America honors by reaching the quarterfinals of the men's doubles tournament, but that success was essentially it for Florida teams in individual play.

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