SOFTBALL: UCF Brings Gator Season To An End, 3-5

The rocket start of the softball season for the Florida Gators back in February raised hopes of a torching run through the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments, but two months ago now seems more like two years ago. The 11-0 beginning of the 2005 season gave way to an 0-4 ending and while a 41-23 final record is very good, those last four games will lead to an offseason of questions.

On consecutive weekends, Florida went two and through in tournament play. Last weekend it was the Southeastern Conference Tournament which was played at the Florida softball stadium. An expected home field advantage never materialized as the Gators were outscored 13-1 in their brief fling in the tournament.

But that was the SEC Tournament and this weekend's NCAA Regional Tournament at the Florida softball stadium held far more promise. The field of Bethune-Cookman, South Florida and Central Florida certainly looked far more inviting than a tournament that included Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Auburn.

As inviting as it may have seemed, it was another two and through for the Gators, however. Friday Bethune-Cookman did the Gators in, 3-2. Saturday evening, in the elimination bracket, UCF won its first NCAA tournament game in the school's history by jumping off to a 5-0 lead before holding on in the late innings to complete a 5-3 win that sent the Gators packing.

Just as they did in the SEC Tournament last weekend, the Gators simply gave games away in the regionals. Bethune-Cookman got only one unearned run in the Gators Friday loss. Saturday, Florida was generously charged with only three errors.

In both the Friday and Saturday losses, the Gators squandered decent pitching from Stacey Stevens. While she wasn't nearly as sharp Saturday as she was against Bethune-Cookman, Stevens deserved a better fate. UCF scored four runs off Stevens in four innings, only two of them earned. In reality, the Knights shouldn't have scored. Simply making a few not so difficult plays would have kept the game scoreless.

Poor defensive play at third base led directly to the Friday loss to Bethune-Cookman, so Coach Karen Johns decided to shake up the lineup with the hope that she could find some answers. Catcher Kristen Butler, who played third base in 2004, shifted to third which allowed Johns to get Mary Ratliff in the lineup for her lefthanded bat. Butler committed two errors and could have been charged with at least three more while Ratliff went 0-3.

"I just pulled out my bag of tricks and was hoping," said Johns of the lineup moves. "She (Butler) has done a great job for us in the past. She played there (third base) all year last year for us. We were trying to generate a little more offense, too. We were trying to get Ratliff in there also with her lefty bat. It was a double edged thing, more offense and better defense. Two hard hit balls hit at her and it just didn't work out for her. It's tough because you try to make things happen and it just didn't work out for us."

The Gators spent part of the year ranked in the top ten and most of the year hovering somewhere in the top 15 nationally, but a 5-11 finish down the stretch could be attributed to one defensive lapse after another. The inability to convert routine plays into outs proved frustrating for Johns. In their final four games of the season, the Gators committed 14 errors and it could have been more if not for generous scorer's decisions.

"If you can't play defense, it's really difficult," said Johns. "You can win the close games if you're playing great defense but we could not win a close game down the stretch. The defense faltered."

While it's easy to see how the defensive failures contributed to the Gators' late season swoon, there were other factors. It was a long 64-game season complicated by one stretch of 14 games in 15 days toward the season's end, including nine games during exams week. During exams week, the Gators went 2-7.

By the time the final out was in the books Saturday, this was a tired Florida team that had lost whatever momentum it had built up a month ago.

"We definitely hit a wall that final week of exams," said Johns. "We had to try and make it through that but we never really gained our confidence back after that."

So the season ends at 41-23, a good season for sure, but certainly not what the Gators hoped for, and particularly, with the SEC and NCAA tournaments being played at home. The Gators have a lot of players returning for next season, but there are holes that have to be filled, holes that were present before the 2005 season ever began. Johns is hoping that a solid recruiting year will fill in the gaps.

"First thing it's going to take is better pitching as far as depth and that's something we've resolved in recruiting," she said. "The next thing is we have some gaps in what we want to achieve. We need a true leadoff batter. We've tinkered with it and tinkered with it and we finally have that coming. We also have to establish a third baseman and we have that coming also.

"So we feel very confident about the three things we knew were going to be our weaknesses coming into this season. I think we mirrored it and smoked it a little bit through some of the season but it reared its head at the end."

TOURNAMENT NOTES: Florida trailed UCF 5-0 in the bottom of the sixth when Melissa Zick launched a three-run homer to give the Gators hope, but Florida couldn't mount a threat in the bottom of the seventh.

UCF played South Florida in a game that began just before 10 p.m. with the winner advancing to Sunday's championship matchup with Bethune-Cookman, an 8-4 winner in a rain-delayed first game of the Saturday schedule. Bethune-Cookman is 2-0 in the tournament and only needs to win one of two games on Sunday to advance to the Super Regionals.

The two wins for Bethune-Cookman are the first two NCAA victories in school history.

Bethune's Amber Jackson managed only one hit in three trips to the plate Saturday which lowered her batting average to a scorching .463. Jackson is sixth in the NCAA

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