The #1 Florida Gators survived Game 1 of the WCWS Finals with a tight 3-2 victory over the #3 Michigan Wolverines.
The Gators jumped out to an early 3-0 all because of the efforts of senior Lauren Haeger. The National Player of the Year hit a two-run home run in her first at-bat and an RBI double in her second at-bat to single-handedly will the Gators to victory. Haeger would account for half of Florida's hits out of the third spot in the lineup as the Gators had just four total in the game. The other two hits came from Kelsey Stewart and Nicole Dewitt, who were first and second in the batting order, respectively.
Although her offense fueled the Gator victory, Lauren Haeger did not pitch this game. Instead, head coach Tim Walton went with true freshman Aleshia Ocasio. For five solid innings, Ocasio was lights out until Michigan tagged her for two runs in the top of the sixth inning. She exited the game with three strike outs, two earned runs, and five hits allowed in six innings of work. She would earn her 18th win of the season when it was all said and done.
In the top of the seventh, sophomore closer Delanie Gourley came in to shut the door and seal the crucial Game 1 victory. However, It was not going to be easy as she had to face the heart of the Michigan lineup. The inning started out rocky for Gourley as she walked the two-hole in Sierra Romero. Romero then advanced to second on a passed ball. The next batter, Kelly Christner, lined a single into right field and it was first and third with no outs and Michigan's clean-up hitter, Kelsey Susalla, up to bat.
The pressure was now on Gourley and she needed to make something happen quick on the mound before the game spiraled out of control. She threw a first pitch strike to Susalla before the left fielder smoked a ball to shortstop Kathlyn Medina. The sure-handed senior fielded the ball and stepped on second before spinning and throwing a strike to first base.
Susalla was safe and I thought the game was tied. To my surprise though, Romero had not left third! There was a point where Medina turned her back to the plate, but Romero decided to go home! So with one out, there were still runners on first and third. Stepping in now for Michigan was catcher Lauren Sweet.
Sweet worked the count to 2-2 before Gourley struck her out for the second out of the inning. The Gators were now just one out away from escaping this mess with the victory! With one out left to work with, Michigan's last hooray lied with Lindsay Montemarano.
The third baseman settled in the box and hit Gourley's first offering on the ground towards Medina. The senior again cleanly fielded the ball and threw it to first to end Michigan's rally and secure the win. Gourley's outing was a chaotic one, but at the end of the day she earned her fifth save and brought the Gators within a win of back-to-back National Championships.
Romero's base running gaffe did indeed end up being the deciding factor as the Gators were able to shut down Michigan for the win. After coming up just short, the Wolverines have to turn around and face the Gators' ace in Lauren Haeger.
Taking Game 1 was so important for the Gators as they now have two games to pull out just one more victory. I understand that a victory in Game 2 will give them an NCAA-record 16 straight postseason wins, but honestly I just want the title any way that Florida can get it.
Tomorrow at 8 p.m. on ESPN, the #1 Florida Gators (59-7) go for their 60th win of the season, the winning streak record, and a second consecutive National Championship. The #3 Michigan Wolverines (59-6) are going to do all they can to prevent all of this from happening and force a do-or-die Game 3. The pressure is definitely on Michigan, as they know they blew their chance to take Game 1 tonight.
Lauren Haeger has one final chance to cement her legacy as one of the best D1 college softball players as she will be on the mound for Game 2. She has been in this situation before, having pitched Game 2 of the 2014 WCWS Finals against Alabama. She will be ready. She will be prepared. She will be a two-time National Champion. All of Gator Nation will be watching, Lauren. Now it is your turn to arise to the occasion for one last time.
*All stats accredited to NCAA.com & Gatorzone.com