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Florida walks off to make Women’s College World Series for second straight year

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When the Gators needed everyone to deliver, everyone did.

FloSports: FloSoftball Rising Stars-Florida at Florida State Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

It had been a heavyweight bout all weekend in Gainesville, with Florida and Tennessee trading blows in a tightly-contested Super Regional that would send the eighth and final team to Oklahoma City for the 2019 Women’s College World Series.

And in the top of the seventh in Sunday’s Game 3, Tennessee appeared to have landed the biggest punch of the weekend. Slugger Haley Bearden connected with a Kelly Barnhill pitch and lifted it over the fence for the first home run of the Super Regional, tying the game at 1-1 and swinging confidence strongly toward the visiting Vols.

When Florida couldn’t walk off in the bottom of the seventh, either — despite pinch-hitting postseason hero Jordan Matthews, who could not follow her Super Regional-winning homer from 2018 and went down quietly — the odds tilted a bit more toward the Vols, given that extras would require Barnhill to pitch into her 25th inning of the weekend, her pitch count approaching 400 hurls over the three sweltering days.

But Amanda Lorenz came to the plate in the bottom of the eighth for the Gators. And she set the stage for the Gators to shine once more.

Lorenz laced a one-out double to the left field fence and put a runner in scoring position for Florida for the first time since the third inning, allowing power hitter Kendyl Lindaman and red-hot No. 3 hitter Hannah Adams to come to the plate with chances to change the game.

Tennessee took the bat out of Lindaman’s hands with an intentional walk, and then Adams scorched a grounder to first that nearly resulted in her reaching safely, but went down as a fielder’s choice.

And so it would be up to Jaimie Hoover, elevated to the cleanup position for this Game 3, to finish the game then and there.

Hoover was hot entering Sunday, with an RBI in both Game 1 and Game 2, but was maybe the worst candidate in Florida’s lineup to do that job on this day, given her performance in her first three tries against Ashley Rogers. Hoover took three strikeouts over the first six innings, and generally looked out of place in the No. 4 spot.

Until she proved to be in the right place at the right time.

Hoover stroked a single to left that sent Lorenz home, sent Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium into ecstasy — and sent Florida coach Tim Walton, manning the third-base line, into the air — and changed the scoreboard for the final time in this Gainesville Super Regional: Florida 2, Tennessee 1.

It stands as the Gators’ second walk-off hit to win a Super Regional in as many years. And it came one year to the day after Matthews’s homer to vanquish Texas A&M, too.

And this game, and this win, feels like a vindication of the scrappiest bunch of Gators Walton has piloted to Oklahoma City.

Lorenz and Lindaman have been the only two truly reliable Florida hitters all year, but Lindaman’s Super Regional was mostly forgettable after an RBI single on Friday, and so it was up to everyone else in the lineup to contribute around Lorenz — who scored both of Sunday’s runs, also getting home in the first on an RBI single by Sophia Reynoso.

And they did.

Lorenz lived on the basepaths in this Super Regional thanks to six walks, scoring once in Saturday’s 3-2 loss before touching home twice on Sunday, but had just two hits, and didn’t have an RBI; those came from Reynoso, Hoover, and Adams — whose sacrifice made Lorenz’s sprint home an easy one from third, rather than an attempt to score from second.

Barnhill has been Florida’s unquestioned ace this year, too, standing head and shoulders over the rest of the Gators’ options on the mound. But her career has been one marked both by magisterial work at her best and perplexing fallibility at her worst. Anyone who knew this team, and knew Barnhill, knew it would be up to her to stand tall and weather not just Tennessee but withering heat over a three-day series.

And she did.

Over 25.1 innings and 373 pitches, she yielded 16 hits, eight walks, and four batters hit — but also recorded 22 strikeouts, and gave up just four earned runs.

She wasn’t always sharp, or overwhelming. She was squeezed by baffling strike zones and went through spates of control issues. But she stood tall through it all: No other Florida pitcher induced an out in this Super Regional.

Barnhill was enough.

These Gators will go on to the Women’s College World Series as something far from a favorite. They might not even be the favorite in their first game, given that Oklahoma State will be waiting in that contest with long-time Walton lieutenant Kenny Gajewski at the helm, a surely raucous crowd behind it, and the confidence from toppling defending national champion Florida State in Tallahassee to bolster it.

But they’re going to OKC for a third straight time — and a staggering eighth time this decade — at the end of what nearly every follower of the team was ready and willing to dismiss as a “down year” in which two all-timers’ brilliance was not enough to elevate them to the highest heights of their sport.

As it turns out, that brilliance alone wasn’t enough.

But these Gators weren’t just those two all-timers after all.