AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Thank You for Everything, Kelly Barnhill

Very seldom did I find myself watching college softball before I started here at FanBuzz. Sure, as summer heat inched closer and the Women's College World Series dominated television, I'd tune in for a few batters, then check back to see the final scores. But I never related to any of the teams. I guess I never understood what this game meant to millions of girls around the country, or what college softball was really like in the South.

Then I met you, the softball fan who lives and breathes 60-plus games a year, hoping to bring a national championship back home. I started my research. I watched Alabama's Montana Fouts take Division I softball by storm. I learned about Delanie Gourley, who makes almost no money despite being one of pro fastpitch's top hurlers. Then, I heard about a pitcher for the Florida Gators, and this one finally showed me how awesome this game really is.

She was Florida softball's Kelly Barnhill. I should say, she is Florida softball's Kelly Barnhill. That's because her collegiate career might be over, but she's a Gator for life.

The first time I realized how transcendent of a player Barnhill was in late March 2019. I was writing about college softball's national rankings when I stumbled upon Florida's opening game against the Ole Miss Rebels. When I read Barnhill's stat line, I thought it was a typo. I thought to myself, 'There's no way this is possible.'

15.0 innings, 17 strikeouts, no walks, two earned runs, 205 pitches.

I double checked. That was only one game.

I read about her finest season as a sophomore back in 2017. I'll throw her list of awards here and let you gawk at how dominant one player can really be.

- USA Softball Collegiate National Player of the Year
- Honda Sport Award Winner
- espnW Player of the Year
- ESPY - Best Female Collegiate Athlete
- SEC Pitcher of the Year
- WCWS All-Tournament Team
- All-SEC First Team
- NFCA First Team All-American
- NFCA First Team All-Southeast Region
- CoSIDA Academic All-American First Team
- 5-time SEC Pitcher of the Week.

That was when I realized how different softball really was. It looked like baseball. It felt like baseball. The truth was, it wasn't even close.

Barnhill was just one incredible workhorse pitcher in a long line of legends. I learned names like Tennessee's Monica Abbott, who owns almost every record imaginable by a D-1 pitcher. (My favorite stat? Only 10 seasons in Division I softball history has a pitcher won at least 44 games. Abbott has FOUR of them.) I stumbled onto Oklahoma's Paige Parker. She tossed four perfect games. In one season. As a freshman.

Softball players are just different, man. I watched Barnhill throw 14 shutouts (tied for first in NCAA), strikeout 358 batters (No. 3 in the nation), and finish second in the country with 34 wins her senior year, then get passed on for numerous conference and national awards. She pitched Florida to an SEC Tournament title. As you'd expect, she was named Most Valuable Player.

Nothing compared to her final pitch at the Women's College World Series.

Barnhill got torched by the Alabama Crimson Tide. The Tide plated six runs over Barnhill's first 30 pitches in an elimination game, and the star senior was pulled. After Alabama extended its lead to 11-0 in the bottom of the fourth inning, long-time Florida coach Tim Walton gave Barnhill her curtain call.

"One more pitch," Walton said.

"I'm gonna cry again," Barnhill responded.

"It'll be worth it."

Barnhill tossed one final strike, 67 miles per hour on the outside part of the plate. Perfect.

As she left the field, Florida fans, Alabama fans, and everyone else in Oklahoma City rose to their feet. Giving the crowd one last Gator Chomp, Barnhill's final ovation was everything she deserved and more. The game stopped and a legend was honored.

Barnhill is off to National Pro Fastpitch. The first overall pick in the 2019 NPF Draft will join the Chicago Bandits, who also selected Georgia shortstop Alyssa DiCarlo No. 4 overall. After what she's done for the college game, this isn't the last time you will hear Barnhill's name flying around a softball diamond. You might even see her on the Women's National Team at the 2020 Summer Olympics.

This is the same girl who threw a 21-strikeout 'perfect' perfect game in seven innings at Pope High School in Georgia. It was one of 22 no-hitters in high school. Somehow, she's still getting better.

You taught me that I'd never survive in the batters box during a game of fastpitch. You showed me what it means to be truly dominant. You helped find a passion for the game of softball.

For that, and on behalf of University of Florida faithful everywhere, thanks for everything, Kelly.

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