WACO, Texas — 14 months ago, Baylor softball made the long trip to Gainesville, Florida for a series they would never get the chance to play. Now, they are returning to The Swamp for the NCAA Gainesville Regional with hopes of a more successful trip.
In 2020, the Lady Bears arrived in Florida as one of the hotter teams in the Big 12.
"We had a great doubleheader at Houston the night before," Baylor senior Taylor Ellis said. "We said we did so well, it shut down the whole world."
Before they could take the field against the Gators, the COVID-19 pandemic exploded, leading teams and conferences across the country to cancel the remainder of the season.
"That was the last time we saw the team," Baylor Head Softball Coach Glenn Moore said. "We sent them on their way expecting them to come back within a week or two, and of course we know what happened then."
Baylor would not play another game in 2020.
"It's just kind of a surreal moment. Probably everybody in every walk of life they're in had the same type of experience," Moore said.
The Lady Bears lost only one graduating senior from the 2020 team, Kyla Walker. Others, like Ellis, were given the gift of an extra year of eligibility. Rather than graduating, Ellis returned for the 2021 season.
However, Baylor's experience could not overcome a wave of major injuries that cost players like Nicky Dawson their extra year of eligibility and diminished the Lady Bears' chances for success on the field.
Baylor lost each of its final six games of the season, including all three games at the Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City.
"I think this does give us new life regardless of our injury situation," Moore said after Baylor's tournament selection Sunday. "Everybody's excited. It's championship season. You put forth your resume at the end of the season, and we put forth what we had. We didn't have any regrets. We put forth everything we had to get to this point and we were rewarded."
Baylor was named the No. 2 seed in the Gainesville Regional by the tournament selection committee. They are paired with South Florida, South Alabama and No. 4 Florida.
"Certainly for me it was emotional, getting that nod to the postseason, because it's a chance," Ellis said. "That's all you need to get to the last game."
The Lady Bears will have to overcome a litany of powerhouse pitchers to advance to a Super Regional for the first time since 2017. Moore said South Florida has "one of the best pitchers in the country," while Florida has "three really good pitchers."
Both Florida and South Florida have appeared in the Women's College World Series within the last decade. Still, Moore believes the Lady Bears are poised for a breakout performance.
"The tools are still there. I think the key is just relaxing, smelling the roses a little bit. This team expects to win. And with this many seniors, you would know they expect to win and aren't just happy to be there," he said.
Baylor opens the Gainesville Regional against South Alabama Friday afternoon at 3:30 p.m.