-- OKLAHOMA CITY -- Florida will play for a second consecutive national championship because freshman Nicole DeWitt hit a ninth-inning walk-off single that brought Justine McLean sliding home with the winning run Sunday afternoon in Hall of Fame Stadium.
DeWitt had that opportunity to be the happy hero because of two throws from center field by Kirsti Merritt and two tags then applied by Aubree Munro. She had the opportunity because of what Taylore Fuller did at the plate. She had the opportunity because of what Lauren Haeger did in the circle and what Kathlyn Medina did with her glove at shortstop.
Because of what all of them did for nine innings Sunday and for four months before that.
A lot went into that run, in short.
When the last pitch of any season is thrown, there almost always remains room for debate as to whether the team that won the championship was the best team that season or the best team for a week in Oklahoma City. Inarguable in almost every instance is that the team best equipped to win the title is the balanced one.
After No. 1 Florida defeated No. 4 Auburn 3-2 in nine innings and No. 3 Michigan defeated No. 5 LSU 6-3, the winner this season should satisfy both criteria. By remaining unbeaten and sidestepping the drama of any winner-take-all games Sunday, the Gators and Wolverines advanced to the best-of-three championship series that begins Monday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET).
Strengths can be argued, but these are teams without weaknesses.
"These guys are fighters," Florida coach Tim Walton said of his team. "We built this program because of them, and they know how to win. I think that ingredient right there is probably the biggest component I've taken from these players. They may not be the best in every skill, but they're really good in a lot of skills.
"And they're really good at the winning skill."
That last ability is about much more than a single looped into left field. Take the throws Merritt made, in combination with the tags Munro applied, when Auburn tested them three times by sending runners for plays at the plate. It worked once. Once wasn't enough.
The game still scoreless in the second inning, Auburn's Morgan Estell walked and eventually reached third base with one out. Back-to-back Florida errors, just the sixth time this season the Gators committed multiple errors in a game and the first time since March 21, loaded the bases. When Emily Carosone lofted a fly ball toward Merritt in center, Auburn coach Clint Myers played the aggressive hand and sent Estell home.
It was high drama. And from Merritt's vantage point, it was well rehearsed.
"I see it every day when we're practicing," Merritt said. "Just to keep my feet right and secure the ball and then -- I don't want to say throw the ball as hard as I can because that's not my thing, but make an accurate throw. That's pretty much what I see."
Her strong throw tailed up the third-base line, but Munro's athletic catch and tag completed the double play and ended the inning.
Auburn took a 2-1 lead in the fourth inning when another Merritt throw was too late to catch the second of two runners to score on Branndi Melero's single to center. But when the Tigers again pushed the envelope in the next at-bat and sent Emily Carosone from second base on a Carelee Wallace single, Merritt again made them pay with a strike.
"I try to give [Munro] a good hop," Merritt said. "I know on the [first] one, the throw made it all the way and my ball kind of tailed. But that's what my throw does, and Aubree knows that. She made a great diving tag. The next one I made an adjustment from the one before and gave her a good hop. We try to say long hop [or] no hop."
All of that unfolds in the time it takes the heart to beat, the runner at third in Merritt's peripheral vision, the thought process to adjust the throw for the tailing motion. Getting to the ball is athleticism. Throwing it is athleticism. Everything else is nuance.
She looked a lot like former Arizona All-American and two-time World Series winner Caitlin Lowe, one of the two or three greatest defensive center fielders the game has ever seen and one of Merritt's idols growing up. She did not look like someone who just started playing outfield when she arrived in Gainesville, although that's precisely the case.
After his team was beaten by Washington in the championship series in 2009, its first appearance in the final round, Walton said he committed to putting out a more athletic defense. In Merritt, a high school shortstop with a background in competitive weightlifting, he found an athlete. A junior, she has become a center fielder, if not yet in Lowe's class, certainly on level ground with LSU's A.J. Andrews, Alabama's Haylie McCleney and UCLA's Allexis Bennett as the best in the college game at the moment.
The errors notwithstanding, Florida proved its defensive class, not just through the law firm of Merritt and Munro but when Medina made a play on a line drive as it carried past her or spun, planted and threw to complete what in her book was a routine play. Take away any of those plays and there might not have been a ninth inning for a walk-off hit.
"We take a bunch of pride in our defense," Merritt said. "Most of our practice time is defense. We do a bunch of drills over and over again. It's the same drills every day -- make sure we get our fundamentals right and make sure we do all the little things right."
That's just it. Florida can beat you with its defense, its patience, its power, its speed or its pitching. If there are teams that do one of those things better, there aren't many who can make a case they for all of them as well. In fact, there may be only the one waiting Monday.
The star all week in Oklahoma City, Haeger got better the more pitches she threw, in contrast to the light workloads necessary in her first two wins in the circle. The Gators even patient, Fuller turned the seventh pitch of her at-bat in the fourth inning into a game-tying home run that prolonged a streak of 14 consecutive NCAA tournament games in which the Gators have been ahead or tied at the end of every single inning.
Walton said it wasn't Florida's best performance, although, as he also suggested, that had something to do with the efforts of an Auburn team that emerged an unquestioned winner from this week even as it exited with a loss. Without a true ace and despite eye-popping numbers of runners left on base, the Tigers in their first World Series appearance showed ample raw material for Myers to polish in anticipation of return visits. In truth, Florida hasn't always been dominant this postseason, its pair of 1-0 tournament wins before the World Series equal to the totals of the past 21 national champions combined.
But they know how to win, which is not some vague tribute to intangibles but a testament to their ability to swing at strikes, throw strikes, hit the cutoff man, take the extra base and do all the other things that put teams in position to have someone deliver a walk-off single.
"I told them I would die for any one of these kids," Walton said of his message during a midseason lull. "They are such great people and great character and great competitors."
No one has ever doubted that Michigan coach Carol Hutchins would throw herself in front of a truck for her team, although it remains unclear whether the truck would win, and she expressed similar sentiments about a team that is similarly balanced.
Walton said he was talked out of changing pitchers in Florida's win, but for the second game in a row, Michigan showed that while every program these days wants to claim it has a pitching staff, the Wolverines will stake their season on it. With Megan Betsa, who was so good in a shutout against Alabama on Thursday, struggling for the second start in a row, Haylie Wagner allowed two hits and no earned runs in 3 1/3 innings. That gave Michigan ample time to erase a 3-1 deficit and score five unanswered runs.
"I'll tell you what, I think it speaks for itself," Hutchins said. "She's come in and she's energized us. She wants the ball, and she's attacking the hitters. She's giving us the confidence that we need on the mount, and that's what the pitcher's job is to do. Set that tone that 'We can win this game, and I'm going to do my part.' She's just been outstanding, her leadership on the mound has been fantastic. We have such a good one-two punch, and she's come in and, with that left jab, has been fantastic."
As for the offense, what more need be said than Sierra Romero hit a home run, Sierra Lawrence hit a double, and then the two of them teamed on a base-running play straight out of the dead-ball era that allowed Lawrence to steal home off Romero's diversion.
Florida is trying to become the first school other than Arizona or UCLA to win back-to-back national championships. In a year when the World Series has already demonstrated the SEC's newfound softball supremacy, Michigan can join Arizona and Arizona State as the only schools with multiple national championships in the super regional era.
What Sunday reinforced was that we have the two teams best equipped to win it all playing Monday night.