The Florida Gators softball team was the best team in the SEC in 2017.
It went 20-3 over a schedule that may not have been quite as rough as some in the league, but still included series with the conference’s runner-up and third-place finishers. That was a good enough record that even an SEC slate-ending loss to Tennessee a little over a fortnight ago was completely immaterial to the Gators’ third straight SEC championship, clinched while every other team in the league still had a full series to play.
Florida was dominant throughout the season. The Gators never trailed in an SEC series, with their three losses coming in a Game 2 against Kentucky avenged with a shutout Game 3 win and in Games 3 against Auburn and Tennessee — those No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the conference — with the series win already going to the Gators. They clicked off three win streaks of seven or more games that overlapped with SEC play, knocking off a great Florida State team and good USF and UCF teams in midweek competition.
For this, the Gators were also honored individually: Kelly Barnhill was the SEC’s Pitcher of the Year, Tim Walton its Coach of the Year. A total of eight Gators were given 10 honors by the league; six made the All-SEC First Team.
Florida was also No. 1 in RPI heading into last week’s SEC Tournament, a testament to the Gators’ annual practice of scheduling adventurously in non-conference play instead of larding their record with wins void of caloric value.
Florida, of course, lost in that SEC Tournament, staying only through an midday defeat to Ole Miss on Thursday. The Gators managed to record just two hits, and a two-run double laced down the line in right in the top of the first produced the Rebels’ only runs of the game. It was the first time in SEC Tournament history that the No. 1 seed was eliminated in its first game.
It is not the first time that Florida has been ousted early, though.
In 2016, Florida lost to Auburn in its second SEC Tournament game. In 2015, the Gators fell to Tennessee in their second game. In 2014, it was Georgia in the first contest that did Florida in.
2013 was the last year in which Florida won more than one SEC Tournament game, in fact — the Gators won the event that year — and Florida’s relative futility in SEC Tournament play is a bizarre failing under Walton. Since his arrival in 2006, Florida has won three SEC Tournaments as the league’s champion — and thrice failed to make the SEC Tournament final as the league’s champion, all of those faceplants coming in the last three years.
But maybe the SEC’s just more rugged than the rest of the country, and thus losses in a single-elimination tournament ought not to be fretted over?
Somewhat incredibly, Florida has more Women’s College World Series appearances (seven) than SEC titles (six) under Walton, and only one less national title than it has SEC Tournament crowns. Florida has more No. 1 national seeds (five) than SEC Tournament championships, as well, and Florida’s two NCAA Tournament titles both came without SEC Tournament titles preceding them.
And this year’s SEC certainly qualifies as one of the most fearsome conferences in the annals of college softball: All 13 SEC teams finished with winning regular-season records, despite four of them losing at least 15 games in conference play, and all 13 SEC teams made the NCAA Tournament. Of the tournament’s 16 national seeds, fully half went to SEC teams.
And the No. 1 overall seed? That is Florida’s, for the second straight year.
That Ole Miss team Florida succumbed to in Knoxville last week was the No. 8 seed in the SEC Tournament, and went 10-14 in conference play. It is also the No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and thus hosting regional play.
That was the “reward” for being the top seed in the SEC Tournament this year — a date with a future national seed in a first-round game.
Florida could have had it worse, sure, and it could have overcome the brutal SEC as it had over the course of a 23-game conference slate.
But the chief benefit of that would have been the laurel of an SEC Tournament title that is considered less important than the SEC regular-season championship the Gators already had. The experience of making an SEC Tournament run might have been valuable, but most of Florida’s roster has been to at least the Super Regional round of the NCAA Tournament, and seven players have national championship rings.
And when Florida can quietly exit the SEC Tournament without a win and still be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, and thus see the cleanest path to more of those rings afforded to any team in the country, why get worked up about that exit, except as a result of the irritation of any Gators losing anything, anywhere?
Florida lost that game to Ole Miss, but precious little else. The Gators were and are among the nation’s best teams despite that loss.
And over the next two weeks, they have a chance to prove it when it really matters —in NCAA Tournament play.