ESTERO — Thursday morning, Florida Gulf Coast University’s softball team headed for the Gainesville Regional at the University of Florida on a charter bus.
A giant surfboard might’ve been more appropriate.
The Eagles head into Friday’s 6 p.m. game at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium against the host Gators in the four-team, double-elimination format riding the waves of emotions and confidence that come with winning 14 of their last 15 games, including all three in last weekend’s Atlantic Sun tournament that ensured their regional berth.
The survivor advances to face the Los Angeles Regional victor in a Super Regional when the 64-team field is whittled to 16. The highest seed from those two regionals will host.
When they learned their first-ever NCAA draw during a watch party late Sunday night, the Eagles exploded, thrilled to play close to home against foes they know.
“They’re all good matchups for us,” said junior right fielder Mariah Fernandez. “I feel this bracket is perfect for us.”
That might sound a bit odd considering FGCU (37-22) has lost to every other team in this field: Fifth-seeded Florida (46-11), Central Florida (39-17) and South Florida (45-11). But those losses — 4-2 in the season-opener at USF, 5-0 against then-No. 2 Florida at USF and 2-1 at UCF — came in February.
These are not those same Eagles. This team that starts two freshmen, five sophomores and two juniors has grown by leaps and bounds after taking its lumps in a 7-11 non-conference start and 3-3 A-Sun beginning.
“We’re not the same team,” said FGCU 10th-year coach David Deiros. “We’re playing with some confidence we didn’t have. We know them. We’ve scouted them and seen them more than once. I think we’ll have a good idea what we want to do with them.”
Sophomore center fielder Jessica Barnes agreed.
“When we played UF and UCF and USF at the start of the season, we weren’t half the team we are right now,” Barnes said.
Led by sophomore catcher Chelsea Zgrabik’s eight home runs in league play (she has 13 total), FGCU had a conference-best 25 home runs in its A-Sun slate. Paced by freshman pitcher Shelby Morgan (22-6, 1.38 ERA), the Eagles’ 2.02 ERA also led the way.
No doubt, this is a different deal. Jitters could play as big a role as home runs or strikeouts for the Eagles.
“If they can keep their nerves under control and stay with the moment and with their responsibility, they can play with anybody in the country,” Deiros said. “They can defend as well as anybody in the country and they can hit as well as anybody in the country.”
Deiros said he’ll play this just as he did the A-Sun tournament at USC Upstate.
“I tried to make sure I put on a really relaxed face, and that’s the way I’m going to approach this,” Deiros said. “I think if I’m calm, it will filter down to (the Eagles).”
Should FGCU lose in the opener, it faces a brutal road through the losers’ bracket. That’s why FGCU will put everything it has in Friday’s game rather than peeking ahead at USF, which holds a 3-2 all-time record against the Eagles, or UCF, which has won the only matchup.
The Eagles are 0-3 against Florida, with all three losses coming at USF. Deiros doesn’t put a lot of stock into that, but he does in a 5-0 loss on Feb. 12, the third day of the season. Although the young Eagles admittedly had stage fright against the Gators and sophomore ace Hannah Rogers, the game was tied heading into the fifth inning as Morgan cruised along with six strikeouts to that point.
But Florida, which outhit FGCU 7-3, exploded for three fifth-inning runs.
That taught the Eagles a lesson.
“If we fall behind and have to come at them, they’ll make us pay,” Deiros said.
Deiros pointed out that the Eagles originally were scheduled to play UF in an early game the day before, but rain pushed it back. On that Sunday, FGCU had been “trashed” (11-0 in five innings) by Illinois State before facing the Gators.
“It’s cold, it’s uncomfortable, it’s windy,” Deiros said. “But still, it’s an even game until the fourth inning when we made a couple of mistakes and they broke the game open. And that’s what Florida can do. As much as I say we can wear pitchers down, Florida will really take advantage of mistakes.”
The Eagles hope to do that to Rogers (27-6, 1.25), an All-Southeastern Conference second-teamer. One of the keys to their turnaround has been patience at the plate, and the Eagles intend to have even more of that against Rogers.
“Hannah Rogers has a nice dropball, but I think we’re going to be really good at laying off of junk and making sure we only swing at pitches we can drive,” said Barnes, one of several Floridians on the FGCU roster who also faced her in high school and club ball. “She has the name Florida across her chest and a little more swagger though now, but ...
“We’re making the pitchers work a lot more, not swinging at the junk pitchers are trying to get us to swing at. We’re really seeing the ball right now.”
So are the Gators, who are led by senior center fielder Michelle Moultrie, the SEC’s player of the year who’s batting .376 with 10 home runs and 64 RBIs. Florida sports seven all-conference selections and reached the title game of the SEC tournament before falling 10-1 to Alabama (which was led this season by sophomore Jackie Traina, a Naples High grad who was named the tournament MVP).
“I’m pleased where our team’s at and pleased where our team has been, and I think there’s been a lot of growth,” said seventh-year coach Tim Walton, who has led Florida to four consecutive Women’s College World Series berths and a second-place finish last season.
“I’m excited,” said Gators freshman pitcher/first baseman Lauren Haeger. “I can’t wait. What you did all season is finally paying off. It’s going to be a fight.”
Florida has a 1.44 team ERA and has given up just 13 home runs. And the Gators have swatted 62 homers — four players have at least 10 — and bat .293.
“I need to keep them off-balance,” Morgan said. “Keep the ball low.”
Before that, the Eagles will sprint onto Florida’s field sky-high Friday.
“I’m excited to play (the Gators), finally show them how good a team we’ve become over the season,” Fernandez said. “I feel like we have a chance that doesn’t come very often because we’re playing so well right now. We have a team that can do it, and we need to take advantage of it.”