It began with another dramatic first inning for Kelly Barnhill in this 2017 NCAA Tournament, if not a damaging one.
It ended with the Florida Gators on top and whirring offensively — and in even better shape than they were in when they arrived at the Women’s College World Series as the No. 1 team in the country.
On a sunny Thursday afternoon in Oklahoma City, Florida scored in every inning prior to the fifth, and Barnhill mowed down Texas A&M, securing an 8-0 triumph ended prematurely after five innings by collegiate softball’s run rule.
Barnhill, who has been plagued by early troubles throughout this NCAA Tournament, found her way into another high-leverage situation in the top of the first against the Aggies, as she issued a walk to leadoff hitter Keeli Milligan and then failed to scoop a slow-roller up the first base line that put runners on the corners with one out.
But Barnhill settled down and got out of that jam with consecutive outs, then allowed just one hit from the second to fourth innings before being pulled in the fifth for Delanie Gourley after a seeing-eye single glanced off Aleshia Ocasio’s glove.
And while Barnhill was silencing the Aggies, the Gators struck early and often.
Janell Wheaton turned a bases-loaded situation into two runs in the bottom of the first with a single. Nicole DeWitt followed suit with a two-run single in the same situation in the bottom of the third. In the third, Florida manufactured its lone run, with a sacrifice bunt setting up Sophia Reynoso to score pinch runner Katie Chronister from second on a single to left.
And in the fourth, Ocasio — last year’s ace, this year’s cleanup hitter — delivered the biggest blow of the day, and perhaps Florida’s postseason, swatting a three-run home run to right that put the Gators up 8-0, and in position to run-rule the Aggies.
They did not do so without a bit of drama, as Gourley immediately gave up a single to put two runners on with no outs in the fifth. But Gourley fanned the third batter of the inning and then got a liner to Ocasio that turned into a swift double play, ending A&M’s threat before it extended the game.
Florida’s five-inning win is the first in a Women’s College World Series game since the Gators scored one against Baylor in 2014, and its shutout was the 39th of its season, tying a school record that was set in 2009 — when Florida played nearly 80 games.
This Gators team has yet to play 60, and would need to stumble out of the catbird seat that is the WCWS winners’ bracket — where they will meet UCLA or LSU on Friday night — to make a real run at 65 games played this year.
If they play like they did on this afternoon in that game, and into next week?
There may only be as many games left in this season as Florida needs to win to secure a third national championship.