OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – It will certainly have to go down as one of the strangest yet entertaining contests in Women’s College World Series history.
In a game packed full of clutch hits and stirring comebacks, great catches, game-altering miscues, controversial calls, 534 total pitches and a ton of heart and fight over five hours and 21 minutes at the ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, Okla., second-seeded Florida outlasted a rugged 14th-seeded Nebraska squad to win an elimination marathon, 9-8 in 15 innings.
Gator third baseman Stephanie Toftt reached base via hit, walk or error all seven times she stepped to the dish, going 2-for-5 with three walks and a RBI. Briana Little was 2-for-8 with a HR and a pair of RBIs, second baseman Kelsey Stewart and first baseman Taylor Schwarz each went 2-for-7 with a walk and catcher Taylore Fuller knocked in a pair of runs. Designated player/pitcher Lauren Haeger earned her 16th win of the season via seven innings of one-run, three-hit relief with four walks and four strikeouts.
“Well, I just want to say congratulations to Nebraska for a great season and one heck of a ballgame,” Florida head coach Tim Walton said. “If that wasn't one of the best, most exciting games of the College World Series, I don't know about ever. But it was one of the most exciting games I think I've ever coached. And I’m really proud of our team and the way they handled. Just got punched in the gut in the seventh inning with two outs, but I thought we did a really good job of bouncing back and showing a lot of heart as did they. They showed a lot of heart and will and determination and hit a home run. We hit a home run back. And that is the last thing I remember to be honest with you. There were so many innings, I don't know exactly what happened after that. But just proud of our whole team, the team effort again. Lauren Haeger pitched her butt off for us and got a big hit. And every one of these ladies up here and the rest of our team really showed me a lot of fight and will to win.”
The Husker offense actually out-hit the Gators by a 14-13 count, but also made six errors in the contest that led to a trio of unearned runs. Catcher Taylor Edwards led the NU charge by going 3-for-6 at the plate with a HR and two RBIs, while second baseman Hailey Decker was 2-for-5 with a double, a HR and two RBIs. Tatum Edwards suffered a difficult loss in the circle, allowing five earned runs on 10 hits with five walks and 12 K’s over 9.1 frames.
Nebraska’s starter Tatum Edwards got out of the gate quickly by inducing consecutive groundouts from Florida’s Stewart and center fielder Kirsti Merritt before running into a tiny bit of trouble. Third baseman Tofft hit a tough bouncer up the middle that forced second baseman Hailey Decker to make a grab and attempt what was an unsuccessful off-balance throw in an attempt to get the runner. With the Gator occupant stationed at first, Haeger blasted a threatening drive to deep left. Nebraska’s Kiki Stokes drifted back on the warning track and managed to make the catch up against the wall to conclude the half-inning with no damage.
UF starter Hannah Rogers faced no such problems in her half of the first, retiring Tatum Edwards on a fly ball to left, third baseman Gabby Banda on a pop-up to first and catcher Taylor Edwards on a fly ball to right center.
After Tatum Edwards struck out the side, despite allowing a two-out single, during the top of the second, Decker got the Huskers offense its initial hit off Rogers in the bottom half by driving a two-out double into the right center field gap. Unfortunately for NU, she remained stuck in scoring position as shortstop Alicia Armstrong hit a sharp bouncer to second that was corralled by UF’s Stewart and tossed on to first to complete the frame.
A bunt single from Florida’s Merritt with two outs in the top of the third started the best scoring chance of the early going for either team. A walk issued to Tofft and a Haeger hit-by-pitch loaded the bases full of Gators for right fielder Kelsey Horton, but the No. 5 hitter struck out looking against Tatum Edwards to end the threat.
Taylor Edwards got Nebraska’s most serious scoring opportunity of the contest to that point going in the bottom of the fourth by leading off the inning with a sharp single just inside the third base line. With the catcher occupying second following a stolen base and with one retired, designated player Courtney Breault lifted a blooper just over second into short right center, placing Huskers on the corners. Decker stepped to the dish and lifted a fly ball to shallow right near the line that was caught via basket catch by a charging Horton. NU’s Taylor Edwards faked going home from third, as the throw in traveled to first base, before deciding suddenly to make an attempt to score. In a panicked try to nail the runner at the plate, the ball was tossed well high and wide allowing Edwards to score easily and pinch runner Kiki Stokes the chance to slide in safely at second. Armstrong immediately followed with a dipping liner to center that just eluded Merritt’s diving try as Stokes crossed for a two-run advantage.
Florida immediately responded to Nebraska’s effort with its own scoring opportunity against Tatum Edwards in the fifth as Stewart singled up the middle and Merritt drew a one-out free pass. Tofft ripped a shot through the left side of the infield that handcuffed Stokes briefly in left as Stewart raced home to cut the deficit in half. Haeger dropped a slow roller up the third base line that was nabbed by Banda. The Husker third baseman turned and failed in an attempt to tag the lead runner before tossing unsuccessfully trying to retire Haeger at first. With the bases loaded and still just one out, Horton hit a slow roller off the end of the bat. Banda charged the ball but her toss to the plate proved just tardy as Merritt slid in safely to deadlock the match-up at 2-2. Catcher Taylore Fuller stepped into the batter’s box and hit a ground ball to short that was thrown well wide of second and into right field as a pair of Gators raced home to make it 4-2. A walk issued to first baseman Taylor Schwarz ended Tatum Edwards’ stint in the circle as Emily Lockman entered in relief. The new hurler didn’t seem to matter as the third RBI fielder’s choice of the frame, this one off the bat of left fielder Briana Little, plated Horton from third to improve the advantage to 5-2. Just moments later the lead expanded to four tallies as pinch hitter Bailey Castro singled through the left side of the infield.
The Huskers cut Florida’s lead to 6-3 during the bottom of the sixth as Decker made it 2-for-2 on the day via a long solo HR to left.
Facing one final chance in regulation to extend the match-up in the bottom of the seventh, Nebraska got some much needed offensive life as pinch hitter Kylee Muir started things off with a sharp one-out base knock to left. Tatum Edwards drilled a sinking liner to center that dropped maybe an inch in front of the glove of a diving Merritt, igniting controversy from Gator coaches who thought a catch had been made. With confidence continuing to build in the NU dugout, Banda drew a walk to pack the bags for No. 3 hitter Taylor Edwards with still just one retired. The crowd erupted briefly as a drive down the left field line hit outside the chalk by perhaps an inch, but the batter quickly bounced back from any disappointment with a RBI single back through the middle as the deficit was cut to 6-4. Thomason lifted a fly ball to center that was caught by Merritt for a sac fly as Tatum Edwards scored from third. UF threw from home to second trying to catch Taylor Edwards advancing unsuccessfully before turning their attention back towards the plate. Banda managed to get caught in a rundown between third and home and even got tagged on the back of the leg while racing home, but the ball was fumbled during the tag allowing the Husker to slide in safely with the tying score to force extra frames.
Following a quiet eighth inning, Florida’s Tofft got the Gators off to a promising start in the top of the ninth by battling Lockman for a walk. Following a foul out by Haeger and a grounder to first, Fuller stepped into the batter’s box facing a big spot with the go-ahead runner located in scoring position. The freshman got a lot of bat on an offering but came up short of the track in right center as Thomason made the catch.
Nebraska also managed to get its leadoff on base during its half of the ninth as center fielder Jordan Bettiol walked against relief pitcher Haeger. The bizarre happenings continued as Banda popped a sac bunt up the first base line that dropped in. Seeing third base uncovered, NU’s hustling Bettiol never hesitated in trying to go from first-to-third on the play, but was tagged out by a recovering Tofft on a dive at third for an inning-ending double play.
With one out in the top of the 10th, Little broke a Florida team string of 194 consecutive plate appearances without a HR by lining a solo shot just inside the left field foul pole to make it 7-6. Bidding for some valuable insurance, the Gator assault continued as shortstop Katie Medina reached on a fielding error and Stewart lined a base hit to right, placing a pair on the base paths. Merritt made an attempt at a HR of her own but it didn’t have the carry needed to right center as Thomason pulled it in for the second out. Tofft’s third walk of the contest packed the bags full of Orange & Blue for Florida’s leading RBI producer in Haeger. She drove a shot the other way to right center but not far enough as the drive was nabbed short of the warning track.
The Gator advantage lasted only five pitches into the bottom of the 10th before Taylor Edwards crushed a Haeger offering deep to center, tying the contest at 7-7. With NU attempting to finish off its final and most important rally of the night, Breault doubled down the left field line with one out, Decker was walked intentionally to set up a potential double play situation and Armstrong drew a free pass to load the bases with one out. Unfortunately for the Huskers a strikeout and a liner to short left the bases juiced.
A questionable call at second derailed a potential Nebraska rally in the bottom of the 10th. With Banda at first and one out following a perfect bunt single, Taylor Edwards hit a ball up the middle. Stewart raced over behind second, corralled the bouncer and tried in vain step on the bag but (according to TV replay) missed it by several inches. The umpire stationed behind the base called Banda out regardless, and Thomason soon concluded the threat by striking out swinging.
Nebraska’s Dawna Tyson appeared to have ended it starting the bottom of the 12th with a towering drive to left. Once again the ball failed to possess the needed carry as Little made the catch at the wall.
A Husker error on a Tofft grounder to short and a sac bunt gave Florida yet another runner in scoring position in the top of the 13th. Fuller drew a walk off Tatum Edwards to join her teammate on the base paths, but a strikeout by Schwarz left the duo stranded.
The Gators threatened again in the top of the 14th after Little reached on an error, advanced on a sac bunt and moved to third on a wild pitch. With two down Merritt hit a tough roller between the circle and third that Banda charged, corralled and tossed along to first to maintain the 7-7 tie.
A Taylor Edwards hit by pitch and a two-out Tyson walk put the potential winning run at second for Nebraska in the bottom of the 14th. Decker lifted a foul ball down the line in left that looked well out of the range of any Florida defender. No one told Medina, however, as the UF shortstop made a spectacular diving catch to end NU’s threat and extend the contest to the 15th.
With one out in the Florida 15th, Haeger got the key rally started with a one-out double down the left field line. She moved within 60 feet of pay dirt on a Jessica Damico single into the hole at short. Fuller followed with a sharp shot to short that took a wicked hop on Armstrong, ricocheting off her body into right center as two UF runs scored for a 9-7 advantage.
Trailing by a pair, the Huskers refused to submit as Armstrong started out the bottom of the 15th with a double down the line in right. Back-to-back groundouts permitted the runner to score from third and cut the gap to 9-8. Down to her squad’s final out, Tatum Edwards battled to draw a walk to extend things one more batter. Banda ripped a shot off Haeger in the circle that ricocheted into short left field. Tatum Edwards tried to advance all the way from first to third but was called out on a tag by Tofft to end the marathon contest in UF’s favor, 9-8 (15).