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Lightning strikes: Florida softball walks off to win Women's College World Series berth

Kirsti Merritt ended a long day quickly to send Florida to Oklahoma City.


Florida's softball team has been up and down this season: Great in non-conference play, and merely good for a while in the midst of their SEC schedule, the Gators had been revving up in postseason play, spanking foes by a 38-0 count in their first four games of the NCAA Tournament entering Sunday.

There would be more ups and downs on that day, but mostly downtime, as a seven-hour weather delay trapped the Gators and Washington at Katie Seashole Pressley Stadium in the final game of a best-of-three series in the Gainesville Super Regional.

And after lightning all but wiped out that deciding game, necessitated by a Washington win in Game 2 early on Sunday, it ended with a flash.

Sophomore outfielder Kirsti Merritt got around on a fastball and cranked it over the wall for a three-run homer that put Florida up eight runs at the end of the fifth inning and triggered softball's run rule. That blast allowed the Gators to walk off with a victory that made them the last of eight teams to advance to the 2014 Women's College World Series over the weekend.

Hours earlier, Kelsey Stewart had delivered a strike of her own, a three-run shot to right in the third inning, to put Florida up 4-0 and in comfortable position to win Game 3. It came one pitch after a lightning bolt was spotted in the distance, and one pitch before umpires suspended the game for a weather delay that would eventually last three hours and 37 minutes.

And that wasn't even the day's first three-hour weather delay. Rain and lightning had previously forced the Gators and Huskies to retreat from the field after the third inning, and that weather created a delay that lasted three hours and 17 minutes, halting play just after 3 p.m. and not permitting it to resume until after 6 p.m., with substantially reduced turnout.

And it was really only diehards who were left at 10:30 p.m., when the game got underway again, and for the final time. Those fans who were in attendance were spared the day's final weirdness, the story of the laptop.

Only Washington's coaching staff truly knows the reasoning for this complaining — theories varied on Twitter — but that brief delay was the game's third, though it did little more than add to the drama of the proceedings. And Merritt's homer rendered most possible complaints moot: Florida managed two run-rule victories on the weekend, while Washington had to scrape back for a 4-3 win in Sunday's Game 2 with a late-inning homer off Lauren Haeger.

With the victory, Florida is back in the Women's College World Series for the second straight year, and will be making its sixth appearance in the last seven seasons. Florida's consistent excellence is testament to Tim Walton and his staff's competence, and the only thing the Gators haven't done in softball under Walton is win a national championship.

2014 may or may not be the year for that title, but the Gators certainly know they can hang in Oklahoma City: They have wins over Oregon, Florida State, and Alabama, three of the other seven teams in the Women's College World Series field, would play either Oregon or Florida State in the winners' bracket with a win over Baylor in their opening game, and were plenty competitive in the SEC, which leads all conferences with three WCWS representatives (Alabama, Florida, Kentucky).

Florida will probably break through at some point under Walton. There's never a better time to do that than the present.

And lightning just recently struck more than twice for the Gators, right?