The Southeastern Conference begins conference play this weekend, and starts off with a bang. A pair of top-5 BR teams square off in a rematch of the 2015 SEC regular season champs against the SEC tournament champs – BR-5 Florida heads east for a three-game series against BR-4 Auburn.
The two teams last met in the Women's College World Series on May 31, 2015 when the Gators eliminated the Tigers on an extra-inning walk-off hit.
Florida's 24-0 record ties for the second-best start to a season in school history. UF began the 2011 season 24-0 and the 2015 season 28-0, and this spring are winning by a combined margin of 161-13, including 14 shutouts and 13 mercy-rule victories.
Freshman outfielder Amanda Lorenz’s .468 average leads the Gators, and ranks 54th in the nation. Lorenz is also eighth in walks with 24, and with a .614 on-base percentage ranks 13th.
Senior outfielder Kirsti Merritt is hitting .424 (14 for 33) over the past two weeks, with two home runs, a double, 11 RBI and 12 runs scored. Senior All-American second baseman Kelsey Stewart is the NCAA active leader in career hits (316) by almost 60 tallies.
While UF's offense is averaging 7.13 runs per game, ranking 18th in the country, it's Florida's pitching and defense that has been the force thus far in 2016. Florida has allowed just 13 runs and committed only nine errors through 24 games.
Each of the Gators' three pitchers has 61 strikeouts; Delanie Gourley – 74, Kelly Barnhill – 68, Aleshia Ocasio – 61, and Ocasio has the third-best ERA in the nation at 0.40, and Gourley is seventh in strikeouts per game with 10.9.
Over at Auburn, the Tigers have dropped just a single game this season and are the top hitting offense in the nation.
Led at the plate by senior outfielder Tiffany Howard and All-American third baseman junior Kasey Cooper, the Tigers are hitting at a .391 clip as a team. Howard’s .545 average is currently 10th in the nation, while Cooper is hitting at an even .500, and her 1.032 slugging percentage places her eighth in all of D1 – her .631 on-base percentage also ranks her ninth.
In the circle, Auburn is second only to the Gators in Earned Run Average, with the Tiger pitchers posting a 0.96 ERA, to the Gators top mark of 0.58. Tiger freshman ace Makayla Martin ranks fourth in the nation with a 0.41 ERA, only a hundredth of a point behind the Gators Ocasio.
UF holds a 36-18 edge on Auburn in the two schools' all-time series, and this is Florida's first visit to Auburn, Ala. since 2013 where the Gators are 14-10 against the Tigers – Florida has not lost a series at Auburn since 2005.
The series opens with a 7:30pm first pitch on Saturday, March 12, followed by a 4:00pm Sunday afternoon matchup. A Monday evening 6:00pm start will round out the series.