Rematch: USF softball is eager for second chance at knocking off the top-ranked Gators

Freshman Lauren Evans (left) scored two runs for USF in the first matchup with Florida. UF junior Taylore Fuller hit the game-tying home run last time the Gators faced the Bulls. 

Flash back to Feb. 8, the first matchup between Florida softball powerhouses USF and UF. The unranked Bulls held a 4-2 lead over the defending national champions heading into the final inning in front of a sold-out crowd.

With one swing of the bat, all of that changed as UF’s Taylore Fuller sent a two-run homer over the left-field fence with no outs, tying the game and opening the floodgates.

With a young and inexperienced team — only three seniors in the lineup — USF fell short of the upset after they allowed eight runs in the top of the seventh in a 10-5 loss, but is now eager to get a second shot at its in-state rival.

Since then, the Bulls (32-12, 3-4) have seen dramatic improvement. They are now 24-1 in games in which they’ve held a lead after four innings and 23-3 when scoring five runs or more.

“We’ve learned a lot about execution and how to play selfless ball,” junior Lee Ann Spivey said. “Going into this game, I think we’re looking more at what can we do to make a team at-bat, not just one person going up to bat.

“Is it my job to hit a ball to the right to advance the runner? Or am I just swinging for the fence? It’s easier having a bunch of people playing for one goal rather than a bunch of different ones.”

Spivey had one hit and an RBI in the first matchup and knows how hard it is to get a hit off the Gators.

“They don’t pitch it in the strike zone,” she said. “Something we’ve been working on this season is not swinging at waste pitches, and one of our pitching strengths is we throw a lot of junk pitches and get away with it and get people out. It’s a challenge, but we’re capable of overcoming it.”

Tonight, the Bulls will have a chance to knock off the No. 1 Gators for the second and final time in the regular season at 6 p.m.

The tough part about facing the class of the SEC is the lack of a weakness in the lineup. It’s rare to find a batter in Florida’s lineup who can’t hit it over the fence.

The Gators (40-4, 11-4) have 12 players with at least one home run, along with five batters who have at least 30 RBIs. Spivey is the sole member of USF’s 30-RBI club with 44, and the next closest is sophomore Kristen Wyckoff with 21.

Coach Ken Eriksen emphasized he wants his team to be aggressive and throw the first punch, something USF has done fairly well, as the Bulls are 24-0 when striking first this season.

“You win the tip-off and get the first possession, you have to know what to do with it,” Eriksen said. “You receive the ball at the goal line. Does your wedge form? Can your pitcher go out and win the first inning? In all of those things, the analogies are the same — you have to be successful early to give yourself a chance.”

Florida is no stranger to the spotlight. The Gators have won eight straight, including four consecutive wins over ranked opponents.

Playing the top-ranked defending champs can be intimidating for any player, especially for a team that consistently relies on the play of freshmen.

“I am nervous,” freshman Astin Donovan said of the hostile environment of Katie Seashole Pressly Softball Stadium. “I haven’t heard too much about it, but just the fact that it’s going to be Florida and I know the fans are going to be there and, yeah, I’m nervous, but we have nothing to lose.”

Donovan leads all freshmen on the team with 16 RBIs and 38 hits and sits third on the team with a .380 batting average.

USF has yet to beat a ranked opponent this season in five attempts, and a win against the Gators would go a long way toward a tournament bid, but would also mean a much-desired win in a heated rivalry.

“(Rivalry games) definitely add more tension,” Donovan said. “Sometimes people are like, ‘Oh, what do we have to lose from it,’ but we’re like no, we want to win. It puts the pressure on yourself to play the absolute best you can.”