OKLAHOMA CITY — Kirsti Merritt hit a three-run homer, and Florida defeated Alabama 6-3 on Tuesday night to win its first NCAA softball championship.
The Gators (55-12) swept the championship series 2-0. Florida was the national runner-up in 2009 and 2011.
Jackie Traina, one of the nation’s best pitchers, gave up five runs in 11⁄3 innings before getting pulled for Alabama (53-13).
Florida coach Tim Walton chose not to start ace Hannah Rogers, but she entered the game in the sixth inning after Lauren Haeger and Delanie Gourley gave her a lead. She gave up one run in two innings. Merritt helped her with a spectacular diving catch in center field for the first out in the top of the seventh.
“I was just trusting whatever he wanted to do,” Rogers said of the coach’s decision. “I knew they would get the job done because they have worked hard all season long. We just stayed together. I’m just so proud of all the girls. I was just so excited (on the final out).
“It didn’t really hit me until we finally made the play.”
Florida beat its Southeastern Conference rival despite committing four errors and giving Alabama (53-13) plenty of chances to score.
It looked early as though Walton’s decision to start Haeger would backfire. After getting just one hit in the first six innings Monday against Rogers, Alabama got singles from Haylie McCleney and Kallie Case in its first two at bats on Tuesday. Jadyn Spencer singled to knock in McCleney, giving Alabama its first run of the championship series. But the Crimson Tide got just one run out of the three-hit inning.
In the bottom of the first, Florida’s Stephanie Tofft cranked a 2-2 pitch with two outs over the left-field fence to tie it.
Florida’s Kelsey Stewart knocked in Aubree Munro to give the Gators a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the second. After that, Merritt’s homer pushed the lead to 5-1 and chased Traina.
Haeger lasted three innings before giving way to Gourley, a freshman. Rogers entered the game in the top of the sixth and pitched a perfect inning. Florida gave her an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth to make it 6-2.