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Gators Grab Back-to-Back National Titles

Florida Wins 2015 WCWS, Second Consecutive NCAA Championship

By TSC Analyst/Contributor DANIEL URBAN 
 
OKLAHOMA CITY  Typical of the immensely popular sporting event it has become, this year’s NCAA Division I Softball Championship got off to a controversial start with the release of its 64-team field and top seeds.

Florida was given the #1 overall seed when it had just been beaten by Tennessee in the Southeastern conference (SEC) tournament.  Then Tennessee was beaten by Auburn.  And even though both teams played better than Florida, Auburn dropped to #4 overall and Tennessee dropped all the way to #8 overall.  That had to be very disappointing for the Tennessee Volunteers.

More than half of the teams (seven) were from the SEC and—this is unheard of—only three were from the renowned Pac-12 conference: Oregon, UCLA and Arizona!  Wow.  But there were still plenty of other Pac-12 teams filling out the Regional brackets, so the conference would have plenty of opportunity to show it was unfairly snubbed.

Most of the top-seeded teams cruised to their first victory in the Regional playoffs, putting up double digits for an easy win.  All but Notre Dame that is...it quickly recorded a loss, falling 6-3 in its opening outing to Ball State.  Yikes.

Oregon was the first team through to the Super Regional after going 3-0.  The Ducks handily beat their opponents by a combined score of 18-4.

The West Kentucky Hilltoppers scored a major upset against #14 overall seed Georgia.  The Hilltoppers hit an RBI double in the 14th inning to score the walk-off run.  What an exciting game!

Fourteen of the 16 top seeds advanced to the Super Regionals.  The two top seeds that were eliminated were #16 Notre Dame and #15 James Madison.  Kentucky defeated Notre Dame to advance, and North Carolina State defeated James Madison to advance.

In the Super Regionals, #3 Michigan appeared poised for a deep run as it engineered a two-game sweep of #14 Georgia to become the first team to advance to the Women’s College World Series (WCWS).

In Game 1 the Wolverines scored a convincing 10-3 victory.  The Michigan offense was electric with a total of 8 hits, 9 RBI and 10 runs scored.  Kelly Christner led the way with 2 hits including a home run and 4 RBI.  Megan Betsa led the way on the mound with 7 innings pitched, 10 strikeouts, 5 hits and 3 earned runs.

In game 2 the Michigan offense again stole the show with 10 hits, 7 runs and 7 RBI.  They were led by home runs from Kelsey Susalia and Haylie Wagner.  Wagner also held it down on the mound with 6 innings pitched, 6 strikeouts, 7 hits and 2 earned runs.

Michigan's offense looked pretty good.  They put up 17 runs in 2 games.  But as good as the offense looked, it's usually not offense that wins the WCWS title.  It's pitching and defense.  I worried about the Wolverines allowing 9 runs in 2 games.  That might be good enough to make it to the big dance, but offense is not going to win it.

As the Super Regional dust cleared, eight teams advanced to the WCWS: five from the SEC, two from the Pac-12, and one from the Big 10.  I guess you cannot call it a surprise, but it still seems odd that only two Pac-12 teams were going to compete for the title.  And over half of the field was from the SEC.  There were no teams from the Big 12.  The Big 10 was the only other conference represented besides Pac-12 and SEC.

Six of the eight Super Regional matchups ended in 2-0 sweeps.  Only Tennessee and Alabama were forced to go to three games to secure their spot in the WCWS.  Tennessee went 3-2, 1-6, and 2-1 against Florida State, and Alabama knocked out Oklahoma with scores of 2-5, 2-0, and 5-3.  Even with the difficulty Tennessee and Alabama had, the top seed was the victor in every single matchup.

Even though it was not technically an upset, Alabama knocking out Oklahoma still felt like an upset to me.  Oklahoma had the nation's #1 power hitter in history with Lauren Chamberlain, and its starting pitcher Paige Parker threw four perfect games this season.  Oklahoma was a really good team and it's very surprising it got knocked out.

I'm also kind of surprised Florida defeated Kentucky so thoroughly.  Kentucky had a chance to play Florida twice during the regular season and did quite well.  Yet it was shut out 7-0 and 1-0 in two games in the Super Regional by Florida.  I expected more out of the Wildcats.

My last surprise was the LSU beat down Arizona so badly.  Arizona was the 3rd ranked team coming out of the Pac-12, yet LSU defeated them 8-0 and 10-5.  I am shocked at how many runs the Tigers hung on the Wildcats.  Arizona is still a pretty elite program with Hall of Fame coach Mike Candrea at the helm.  Very surprising.

If you look at the numbers you'll see it was Oregon that actually had the most dominant play in the Super Regionals after Florida.

Oregon beat North Carolina State 6-1 and 9-3.  And the last two runs in the second game were basically made in garbage time when the Ducks were already up four runs.  And they started their second string pitcher in game 2!  Cheridan Hawkins was easily the MVP for the Ducks in the Super Regional series.  She pitched 9 innings and struck out 20 with only 2 earned runs.  Hawkins was peaking at just the right time and gave Oregon at least as good of a chance to win it all as Florida.

The first day of WCWS competition saw two upsets.  I expected Florida to defeat Tennessee and it did 7-2.  I also expected Michigan to defeat Alabama which it did 5-0.  But I was not expecting LSU to upset Auburn 6-1 or for UCLA to defeat Oregon 7-1.

All the teams making the WCWS are good, so some upsets are to be expected, but LSU and UCLA put exclamation points on their upsets.  Both teams thoroughly defeated their higher-seeded opponents.  I am most surprised that Oregon got defeated so badly.  Oregon even had its ace pitcher Hawkins on the mound.  But she wilted under the pressure of the bright lights and gave up 8 hits and 7 runs in 5.2 innings.  Hawkins is a battle-tested upperclassmen.  It is shocking she would do so poorly in the WCWS.

If there was one pitcher looking like "the one" early on it was Florida's Lauren Haegar.  Haegar won two games right out of the gate in dramatic fashion: in the first she gave up only 2 runs over 7 innings and struck out 4.  In the second she pitched a 7-inning shutout, scattering only 5 hits and striking out 4.

Every year it seems one pitcher catches fire and is instrumental in leading her team to the championship.  At that point no one was pitching like Haegar and, if she could keep it up, Florida would be hard to beat.

Tennessee and Oregon were the first two teams to fall.

I was beyond stunned that Oregon performed so poorly in the WCWS.  The Ducks only lost 7 out of 61 games during the regular season and playoffs.  They topped the Pac-12 and looked dominant during the Regionals and Super Regionals.  Then they got to the big dance and lost two in a row!

The buck stops at the top, so a lot of the blame has to go to ace pitcher Cheridan Hawkins.  She is an upperclassmen and has been to the WCWS before.  She needed to play better to give Oregon a chance.  She laid an egg in game 1 against UCLA by giving up 7 runs.  She did better in game 2 against Alabama and only gave up two runs, but that was not good enough.

Hopefully this really stings Cheridan and she comes back better and stronger for her senior season--maybe enough to lead Oregon to its first national title.

Tennessee's loss was not as surprising.  The Volunteers finished 5th in the Pac-12 and probably out-performed their ability.  They have nothing to be ashamed of with how they ended their season.  They definitely outperformed expectations.

The field was pared down to its Final Four as Auburn defeated UCLA 11-10 in a 10-inning barnburner that featured many dramatic moments including four runs scored in the 7th inning (three by UCLA and one by Auburn) to send the game to extras, a crucial UCLA double play in extra innings that ended the inning, and a dramatic catch of a hard hit ball at the wall by UCLA to save the winning run.

The moments were so dramatic that it made the way the game ended anti-climactic: a walk-off walk by UCLA pitcher Selina Ta'amiko.  She threw a walk with the bases loaded, and with a single pitch ended UCLA's season.

On the other side of the bracket LSU defeated Alabama 5-3.  LSU's MVP of the game was sophomore outfielder Bailey Landry who had two timely base hits that knocked in two runs and led to Bailey herself scoring as well.  Baily was responsible for three runs, which was equal to as many runs as Alabama scored the entire game.

It's amazing there were no Pac-12 teams in the Final Four.  Three of the four were from the SEC and one was from Big 10.  The two Pac-12 teams in the eight-team WCWS field were among the first eliminated!  Crazy.

Lauren Haeger continued her fantastic 2015 playoff campaign in her opener against Auburn with 9 innings pitched, 6 strikeouts and only 2 earned runs.  The only problem was that she had thrown 24 innings in the past three days (including 160 pitches in the opener), so she was understandably not 100% on her game.  Fortunately for the Gaters, however, Auburn didn't take advantage of all the pitches Haeger left out over the heart of the plate.

As far as the other two teams, Michigan was going to be tough to beat.  The Wolverines had been quietly dominant throughout the WCWS, scoring at least five runs in every WCWS game and allowing only seven runs over three games.

The WCWS final series pitted Florida against Michigan for the right to claim the championship for 2015.

The Florida Gators took game 1, defeating the Wolverines 3-2.  With one more victory the Gators would be repeat as NCAA champions.  The scariest part for the Wolverines is that the Gators kept them to only two runs with their 2nd and 3rd string pitchers on the mound.  Both of whom are freshman.

Freshman Alecia Ocasio pitched six innings, scattering 5 hits while striking out 3.  Ocasio's two runs were given up in the 6th inning.  Freshman Delanie Gourley then entered the game in relief for the 7th inning and allowed 1 hit, struck out 1 and recorded the final out to secure the victory.

Lauren Haegar, the team's ace pitcher, was instrumental from the plate this game. She was the team's offensive MVP with a 2-hit, 3-RBI and 1-run performance.

And speaking of Haegar, she would be back on the mound rested and ready for game 2, so Michigan would have to really bring its “A” game to stay alive.  But the Gators had been grinding out victories all postseason, so if anyone still had a shot to take out Florida it was Michigan.

And that’s exactly what happened.  The Wolverines put on a defensive clinic and defeated the Florida Gators to force a game 3.  This entire game was dominated by pitching and defense.  Florida brought back freshly rested National Player of the Year winner Lauren Haeger to the mound to try and close out the series.

Haeger pitched brilliantly, and on most days her performance would have been more than good enough to win.  She pitched six innings, allowed four hits and one earned run.  And while that one run will go down in the record books as an earned run, it was two consecutive misplays by the Florida defense that really allowed the run to score.

But while Haeger was good, Michigan's Haylie Wagner was better. Wagner pitched seven innings and struck out six while allowing five hits.  Most importantly she allowed zero runs.  She and the Michigan defense were outstanding.  For Michigan to defeat Florida it had to be perfect.  Tonight Michigan was perfect.

But it was not enough for the brass ring.

In the third and final game, Florida ace pitcher Lauren Haegar was just too much for the Wolverines.  The senior pitcher put up a very familiar stat line in her last career start for the Florida Gators: 7 innings, 5 hits, 1 earned run and 5 strikeouts.  Haegar was never a strikeout-pitcher; she pitched to contact and let her exceptional defense get outs for her, and she executed this to perfection throughout the postseason.

In addition to her stellar pitching, Haegar also contributed on offense with a hit and an RBI.  Haegar was a force that could not be stopped!!

The rest of the Florida offense was also instrumental in the victory.  They jumped on Michigan ace pitcher Haylie Wagner early and put up 4 runs in the first two innings.  Wagner was pulled after the 2nd inning and Haegar and the Florida defense were able to hold serve for the remaining 5 innings to secure the victory.

This is the 2nd straight national title for Florida.  The Gators may just be the next great dynasty in college softball equal to the likes of Arizona, UCLA and other greats before them.  The Florida Gator's back-to-back championships is the first time a team from a conference other than the Pac-12 has accomplished this feat.

The Gators win is further proof that the locus of college softball excellence is shifting away from California and moving to the American South. Read more.

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