- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Should Florida win Saturday's SEC tournament championship game against top seed Alabama (ESPN2/ESPN3, 1 p.m. ET), the Gators won't need to ask for recommendations for a celebratory dinner. Having spent the past week and a half here, more time in town than even the Crimson Tide in the span, they ought to know their way to every burger joint and rib shack in the county by now.
Of perhaps greater importance, it appears one of college softball's youngest national title contenders is using its extended stay to get to know itself a little better. There are no guarantees that what the Gators discover will get them to the Women's College World Series for the fifth season in a row, but it beats the cloud of uncertainty under which they exited last weekend's series in the same stadium that will host Saturday's game.
"Any time you're on the road, your team has an opportunity to bond together a little bit more," Florida coach Tim Walton said of a group that remained in town after losing a three-game series at Alabama to close the regular season. "You have a little bit more structure. You don't go to your own house when you go home; everybody goes to the same hotel and eats the same food. So I think you can have a really good bonding experience. I'm pleased -- bigger than just wins and losses, I like my team when they act right, when they're professional, they have good body language."
But getting more of those wins than losses doesn't hurt.
For the second straight day, third-seeded Florida won a game without generating the kind of offense that has come to be associated with Walton's program, beating second-seeded Tennessee 2-1 in eight innings to advance to the championship game for the first time since 2009. And, for the second straight day, the Gators watched freshmen act like the pressure of the postseason was all they needed to feel at home. Against LSU in a quarterfinal, it was freshman Lauren Haeger throwing a complete-game shutout in a 1-0 win. On Friday, after tying the game against the Lady Vols in the third inning when freshman Sami Fagan came around to score following one of her four hits, fellow freshman Bailey Castro delivered a long pinch-hit home run in the top of the eighth to provide the final margin of victory.
After her playing time was limited early in the season as she continued to work her way back from a broken leg sustained last fall, Castro entered Friday's game hitting .197 in 77 at-bats, almost entirely as a semi-regular starter at designated player. But Walton told her from the outset Friday he would call on her to pinch-hit late in the game, and she spent the first seven innings studying Lady Vols starter Ivy Renfroe. She fell behind 0-2 to lead off the eighth, but didn't panic or succumb to the temptation to swing at Renfroe's rise ball. After working the count back to full, she delivered.
"That's the stuff that I've seen that kid do since she was 14 years old, hit bombs like that," Walton said of the high school All-American. "She's a talent. She's a very good hitter. She's just like some of my other kids; she's struggling with her confidence. They've never failed before. They've always been their team captain, their team leader and big-time players. A lot of our kids are struggling, with just the confidence and the expectations of what it means to play on this stage every day of the year."
After losing five seniors who played key roles on four World Series teams, Florida had plenty of playing time available this season for 11 freshmen and sophomores, and even more when former U.S. national team member Brittany Schutte suffered an injury after 17 appearances that effectively ended her season. And with a 46-10 record and a chance to play for the tournament championship, the Gators hardly spent the past few months lost in the wilderness.
They have at times, however, looked like a team winning without knowing exactly how they were doing it. The Gators have talent, but they didn't have personalities like Kelsey Bruder or Francesca Enea to rally around, something that became clear in a late-season fade that culminated with the series loss against the Crimson Tide. These Gators likely won't ever hit like the teams of the past few seasons, but from Fagan's emerging leadoff brilliance to Katie Medina's defense to Cheyenne Coyle's power to Lauren Haeger's all-around skills and on down the roster, the pieces are there.
The sum of the parts just can't be greater than the whole.
"Every one of our kids contributed in the last two games to our Ws," Walton said. "I'm happy for them. I feel like they are getting closer together and maybe even a little bit more familiar with each other, so to speak."
The team the Gators face in the final is in no such search for identity. As long as ace Jackie Traina is in the circle (and Alabama coach Patrick Murphy was noncommittal when it came to giving her the ball for what would be her sixth start in nine days), the Crimson Tide are as balanced a team as any this side of top-ranked California. Alabama knows what it is and dares you to beat it. With Traina in the circle, few have. Georgia tried in Friday's second semifinal, but Traina answered every challenge in a 1-0 win and got all the run support she needed from Courtney Conley's home run.
"I don't know if I've ever faced someone who makes it move as much as she does and throws as hard as she does," teammate Cassie Reilly-Boccia said recently of Traina. "She's really unique with what she does."
On the other side, pinch-hit home runs and pitching gems against bad offensive teams aren't necessarily the foundations of a championship run. Coming up with the plays to win and the energy to compete in a postseason setting, on the other hand, are building blocks worth noting. Take the case of a freshman who drove a ball deep into the Alabama afternoon Friday.
"Every game has been a different battle for me," Castro said. "Every game I'm getting more comfortable in the box, so all season I've just been getting more and more comfortable."
There will be nothing comfortable about playing Alabama in front of what should be a fully partisan full house Saturday afternoon. At least the Gators know their surroundings.
Florida may still be searching for its identity, but the Gators softball team is familiar enough with its current enemy territory to potentially lock up the SEC crown.