Having just clinched Florida's second straight trip to the Women's College World Series, senior pitcher Stacey Nelson had a question for her coach.
"Stacey gave me a hug and said, 'Coach, four years ago, did you know we'd be going back to our second College World Series?' " fourth-year coach Tim Walton recalled. "I told her, 'Four years ago, I didn't even know you were going to be this good, and thanks for being that good.' "
Nelson, from Los Alamitos, Calif., has turned out to be one of the best pitchers in school history and is a big reason the top-ranked Gators are returning to Oklahoma City, home of the eight-team tournament that will crown softball's national champion over the next week.
On Tuesday, Nelson became the first Florida athlete to win the Senior CLASS Award, an honor that reflects accomplishment in the classroom, character, community and competition.
The right-hander leads the nation with a 0.41 ERA, and ranks second in victories (39-3) and shutouts (20). She is seventh on the NCAA's all-time wins list (134) and has won SEC pitcher of the year the last two years.
"You don't replace those kids," Walton said. "This kid is one of the most special kids you'll ever have a chance to coach."
She had one of her best outings in last weekend's super region as Florida swept California in a doubleheader. Nelson pitched a complete-game shutout in Game 1, then was called upon in relief in the third inning of Game 2 with the tying run at second base and no outs. She answered with five scoreless innings.
"All the great ones have that ability. She just doesn't crumble under pressure," Walton said. "That was probably the best she's looked all year long."
Top-seeded at the beginning of the 64-team WCWS, Florida (60-3) opens against ninth-seeded Arizona (46-15) at 9 tonight (ESPN). Fourth-seeded Alabama (52-9) and fifth-seeded Michigan (46-10) round out Bracket 2, playing at 7. Bracket 1 consists of third-seeded Washington (46-11) vs. sixth-seeded Georgia (44-10) at 1 and No. 10 Arizona State (46-17) vs. Missouri (50-10) at 3, also playing a double-elimination format. The bracket winners meet in a best-of-three series.
"It's tough to get to this point. We knew that this road was not going to be easy," Nelson, 22, said. "To finally be in the College World Series, it's just a great feeling of accomplishment, but at the same time it's excitement because we have another tournament to play."
Florida made its first-ever WCWS appearance last season. It lost its first game but fought through the losers bracket before being eliminated by Texas A&M one win short of reaching the championship series.
The Gators lost just one starter from last year, so most have experienced the pressure that awaits them.
"The good thing about this team is we've been through every scenario," Walton said. "We've been everywhere. What situation haven't we played in? Backs against the wall, bases loaded, no outs at the College World Series, season on the line. I think this team is a good team. It's prepared. I don't think there's going to be a situation that they're not prepared for."