Gators softball headed to WCWS after holding off Baylor behind freshman duo

GAINESVILLE — Florida softball coach Tim Walton would have preferred a Sunday off, but an extra trip to the ballpark was worth another visit to the Women’s College World Series.

The Gators’ bounce-back 5-3 decision during Game 3 of their NCAA Super Regional with Baylor came on the heels of UF’s first loss in more than a month.

Prior to the deciding game, Walton noticed his players had a pep in their step and pop in the bats that had been missing as Saturday’s lackluster 5-2 loss ended UF’s 12-game winning streak.

“I would have loved to have won yesterday; I’d be sitting on a beach right now,” Walton quipped. “I told [former star and assistant coach] Francesca [Enea] this in the cages: ‘We freaking smoked the ball.’ … Does it always take a loss?”

Florida (51-13) was able to summon whatever it took to hold off Baylor (36-23) and reach the WCWS for the 12th time under Walton, who also picked up his 1,100th career win.

The No. 4 Gators will face No. 5 Oklahoma State (49-10) Thursday in Oklahoma City. The Cowgirls beat the Gators 3-0 Feb. 19, the 13th game for a retooled UF squad with 11 newcomers.

“There’s nothing better than ending your season or career at the College World Series,” Walton said.

To get there against Baylor, Gators rode an early offensive surge Sunday, highlighted by slumping freshman Mia Williams’ two-run home run in the second inning, and the resilience of freshman pitcher Keagan Rothrock a day after she was relieved after just three batters.

Hitless her previous five games, Williams ripped an 0-2 pitch over the right-field wall to give her team an early 4-0 lead.

“I knew it was home run right away,” she said.

But the daughter of former basketball star Jason Williams grounded into a double play with the bases loaded to end the third inning, with the Gators’ potent lineup positioned to overwhelm the Bears.

“Once we got out of that bases-loaded jam, I knew we were in this,” Baylor left fielder Emily Hott said.

Hott’s 2-run home run in the top of the fifth inning cut the lead to 4-3, potentially rattling Rothrock and forcing a decision from Walton. A day earlier, the 19-year-old right-hander from Indiana yielded a 3-run home blast to first baseman Shaylon Gowan, leading Walton to switch to freshman Ava Brown.

This time, Rothrock remained in the game and displayed her grit to pick up the 30th win against just seven losses in 2024. After facing just four batters during the sixth inning Sunday, Rothrock needed to retire the Bears’ Nos. 2, 3 and 4 hitters with two runners on base, ending the game on a infield fly-out by pitcher Aliyah Binford.

“She’s competitive; she’s relaxed in there,” UF star shortstop Skylar Wallace said. “I’ve seen it develop from the beginning of the season until now. That was huge.

“But I had nothing but trust in her and confidence in her that she was going to do her job.”

Rothrock’s resilience and the Gators’ offense ended the Bears’ season a game shy of their first trip to the WCWS since 2017. UF added an insurance run in the fifth when catcher Jocelyn Erickson scored on a sacrifice fly by freshman third baseman Ariel Kowalewski.

“She kept her cool as a freshman,” Baylor coach Glenn Moore said of Rothrock. “She’s going to win a lot of ballgames, of course. You can pitch well when you have an offense like behind you.”

The Gators entered the weekend averaging 8 runs on 8.2 hits and batting .342 but were held to an average of 3.7 runs in three games while totaling 17 hits and an average of .229.

“Our kids are going to make you earn it,” Moore said.

The Gators had lost back-to-back games just once this season entering Sunday and won their past four Game 3s during Super Regionals under Walton, who is now 6-1 overall in these winner-take-all affairs.

UF seized control as Wallace set the table with her fifth hit in eight at-bats during the series, putting runners on second and third. Left fielder Korbe Otis then scored on sac fly from Erickson, who tied Megan Bush’s 13-year-old school record with her 80th RBI.

Wallace scored on a single by designated hitter Reagan Walsh for a 2-0 lead.

Williams’ homer appeared to put UF in command, but emotions overtook a squad featuring 11 newcomers, including four freshmen in key roles.

“We hit a little spot where we were nervous again,” Walton said. “You could feel it.”

But unlike a day earlier, the Gators quickly regained their composure and will return to the WCWS after missing out in 2023.

This will be Wallace’s third trip to eight-team double-elimination, including as a freshman in 2019 at Alabama when the Crimson Tide actually eliminated Florida before falling to Oklahoma.

The 24-year-old like the Gators’ chances this time.

“I get to finish my career playing in Oklahoma City with the best team I’ve played for,” Wallace said.

Edgar Thompson can be reached at