GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Hidden somewhere amid the masses at Pressly Stadium Wednesday night was Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin. He and the record crowd of 2,574 were treated to a chamber of commerce evening and as good a collegiate softball game as will be played in the country this season.
The third-ranked Gators defeated rival and top-ranked Florida State when junior Kayli Kvistad lashed a two-out single in the bottom of the seventh to score Justin McLean from second and walk off with an exciting 1-0 victory and ninth straight win. The two teams came in with a combined three losses on the season and played a game that lived up to the hype, complete with all the atmosphere and juice of a NCAA Super Regional.
Oh, and did we mention it was Florida-Florida State?
And there was Stricklin, in his bleachers seat along the first base line, cheering the Gators on a night they set a home softball attendance record for the second time in four days. In Game 1 of UF's weekend series against No. 18 Georgia, a crowd of 2,497 checked in Saturday.
The Gators outdid that one on a school night.
"If anyone needs an illustration as to why we have to expand the stadium, two record crowds in a week is a pretty good illustration," Stricklin said afterward. "This makes me think we need to get going on that capital improvement initiative."
No one will argue. Fans were lined up three and four deep behind the bleachers. The crowd over the right-field fence was several hundred strong.
"Gator Nation was great tonight," Kvistad said.
Exactly nobody left disappointed.
OK, so maybe the Seminoles did. Their All-America ace Jessica Burroughs was spectacular in going 6 1/3 innings and limiting the Gators to just two Janelle Wheaton singles before giving way to lefty reliever Meghan King with one out and nobody on in the seventh.
"Burroughs is just so tough," UF coach Tim Walton said.
Florida's pitching matched that toughness. Senior Delanie Gourley worked through an adverse first inning when she allowed three hits, thanks to a tremendous defensive play when left fielder Amanda Lorenz gunned down FSU's Jessica Warren at home to end the inning. From there, Gourley settled down to allow just one more base runner in throwing five scoreless frames before yielding the final two innings to Kelly Barnhill. The sophomore superstar mowed through the Seminoles' order, without surrendering a hit and striking out three, to set the stage for the UF seventh.
The first batter King faced was the speedster McLean, who dropped a perfect one-handed drag bunt to the left side and legged out the play. For McLean, a .327 slapper, it was the first bunt single of the season.
"If I get it down, no one is going to have the opportunity to get me," McLean said.
That's just how the Gators feel about McLean when she's on the base paths. When Lorenz grounded to first, McLean easily made it to second, but with two outs. Nicole DeWitt followed with a walk, sending to Kvistad to the plate.
Two innings earlier, Kvistad ended the fifth when she flew out to left with runners at second and third.
"There was no way that was happening again," Gourley said. Instead, Kvistad lashed a 2-1 pitch into right center and Seminoles outfielder Carsyn Gordon had no chance at a play. Not with McLean blistering around third.
"For her to be able to get on [base] and create a little bit of havoc," Walton said. "Justine's speed allows us to score from just about anywhere on the field."
The home team - and its crowd - celebrated appropriately. The game-ending cheers could just as easily have been for the high-quality of play and tremendous atmosphere.
"The environment, with two of the best programs in the country, from the same state, it just brought the best out in everybody," Walton said. "I thought it was awesome."
So did Walton's boss, who is no newcomer to college softball, having come to UF by way of Mississippi State. But he's definitely getting an increased level of dosage on the women's diamond and now is witnessing first hand how the program has captured the hearts of the orange and blue fanbase.
"It was pretty special," Stricklin said. "It's unbelievable what Tim has done and the way he's gotten people to care so passionately about softball. It's just really cool."
Now, about that stadium upgrade ...