It had to end as dramatically as possible.
It was the end of this Gainesville Super Regional between Florida and Texas A&M, after all, a collection of three games that showcased the utterly mesmerizing drama and heart-stopping reversals of fortune that can be the story of college softball.
And so it had to end with the senior and the senior and the unthinkable.
Before then, things were going far more predictably — at least, predictably by the standards established prior to this wild weekend in Gainesville.
Prior to this wild weekend in Gainesville, after all, Texas A&M had never won in Gainesville, and No. 2 Florida looked like a national championship contender — one that had outclassed the Aggies in a three-game sweep in March.
Florida got two-out RBI singles from in the fourth and fifth innings from Hannah Adams and Janell Wheaton to build a 2-0 lead over A&M — and, yes, the scuffling Gators offense could probably have made it a bigger one. Gators runners made outs at the plate in the first and fourth innings, and Florida’s two runs represented a poor conversion of its 10 baserunners and an echo of the year-long struggles this team has had with converting a disciplined approach into gaudy run totals.
The series had already been the most dramatic in college softball this weekend, though, so what reason was there to believe things were going to stay sedate?
Florida fought back from a 4-2 deficit in the bottom of the seventh inning in Thursday’s Game 1, ultimately winning 5-4 on a walk-off walk. Texas A&M repaid the favor on Friday in Game 2, with Tori Vidales swatting a three-run homer off Ocasio in the sixth inning to stake the Aggies to a 5-4 lead that would become the final score.
So when A&M loaded the bases in the top of the sixth inning with two singles and a walk off Kelly Barnhill — who yielded a season-high eight hits and collected just two strikeouts in a rare start marked more by her struggles than her success — Florida fans understandably felt their hearts find their throats.
But Ocasio got two strikeouts in quick succession, and a passed ball allowed just one run to score after the second. And then the Gators’ senior ace got a flyout to left to get out of the jam with the lead intact.
And so that could that have been where the drama died.
After Florida failed to get an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth, Ocasio started off the seventh with two strikeouts, getting three strikes away from a return to Oklahoma City. She looked good, calm, confident.
Then Sarah Hudek, who hit a first-inning homer off Barnhill on Thursday in Thursday’s Game 1 to put Florida on its heels from the beginning of this series, smoked a single to left.
Suddenly, Texas A&M had the game-winning run on base.
The moment recalled the lowest moment of Ocasio’s career. Two years ago, in a Super Regional matchup with Georgia, the Gators’ do-everything senior had been No. 1 national seed and two-time defending national champion Florida’s sophomore phenom, and had a chance to close out the Dawgs in the bottom of the seventh inning and get Florida to a decisive Game 3.
But she didn’t. She gave up a homer to Georgia’s Kaylee Puailoa — a pinch-hitter, cameoing on the stage — and Florida’s season ended in a flash.
And now Ocasio faced Vidales, A&M’s senior leader at the plate, the leading run-scorer in Aggies history.
And then Vidales lasered a no-doubt shot over the fence center that gave A&M a 3-2 lead — her second go-ahead homer off Ocasio in as many nights, fewer than 24 hours removed from the first.
And so Ocasio had done it again. She had ended a sterling career with a stunning mistake.
Yet Florida would fight back in the seventh inning.
Amanda Lorenz, with the patience of a saint and a mother, drew her 11th walk of the NCAA Tournament to lead it off. Nicole DeWitt, who saw the ball so well throughout the day, cranked a flyout to deep left. Kayli Kvistad, mired in a senior season-long slump, worked a walk of her own.
And that brought up Wheaton again, poised to be the day’s hero.
She got the count to 3-1. And then Trinity Harrington, who played with fire and nibbled the corners for the entirety of the Super Regional, got a call — a strike at 3-1 that extended an at-bat that could very easily have been a walk.
Then she got another, on a called third strike that could have easily been a ball — on a pitch that was barely distinguishable from the last pitch that Barnhill threw in the game.
And so the fate of the game rested on the shoulders of a senior ... and a freshman.
Harrington carries one of college softball’s best stories to the mound with her every time she pitches. In 2017, she carried her Aggies to Oklahoma City, bearing the brunt of the pitching workload for Texas A&M in Super Regional play — and bearing perhaps the sport’s heaviest heart, as she pitched just days after losing her father to cancer.
And Florida had helped to make sure that chapter of her life didn’t end with an ultimate triumph a year ago, knocking off the Aggies at the Women’s College World Series.
But Harrington had another year, another chance. And she had been heroic for the Aggies again in this Gainesville Super Regional: She threw the lion’s share of the pitches, and she was not the reason Texas A&M fell on Thursday, having been lifted before the night’s walk-off walk.
And she was one strike away from closing out the Gators when Jordan Matthews fouled off a second strike.
Matthews, just a freshman, has more chances to win college softball games and to establish a legacy in the sport than Harrington. And there was little to suggest the light-hitting utility player would solve Harrington at that moment, on this day.
She hadn’t had a hit in the Super Regional until Saturday. And she certainly wasn’t a home run threat, having gone the whole of April and most of May without one.
But the funny thing about sport is this: It doesn’t give a single damn what your narrative looks like, how your script reads, or what the ending should be.
It doesn’t actually have to end this way, or that way.
Drama and irony and motivations and narratives are the trappings of the stories, sure, but the women and men in the arena author the stories with their bodies and write the future with their actions. Michael Jordan hits the last shot in his last game sometimes, but Buster Douglas defeats Mike Tyson, too. Chaminade beats Virginia, and so does Maryland-Baltimore County. Karelin can fall; the Yankees can win.
The stories, in sports, belong to those who play them.
And so Matthews inked her own ending — with a thunderbolt.
And so Matthews slammed a three-run homer to the scoreboard at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium — the last one at the facility before an eight-figure renovation this offseason — and ended the game (at 5-3) and the Gainesville Super Regional (at 2-1) in Florida’s favor.
And so the Gators are going to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series.
And so we will remember this day forever.
It didn’t have to end this way.
But it did.