Hightower peaking for Florida at right time
Elizabeth Hightower stood one out away from etching her name in the history books.
The crowd at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium rose and applauded in unison. With the count at 2-2, the USF pinch-hitter hit a fly ball into left center. Center fielder Cheyenne Lindsey easily made the catch.
She did it.
Hightower became the fourth Gators pitcher to throw a no-hitter in the postseason, as she shut down the Bulls 8-0 last Sunday to advance UF to the NCAA Super Regional.
The Gators, in the brink of elimination from the NCAA tournament today, are expected to start Hightower in the circle to force a third game Sunday against Georgia, which won Game 1 4-0 on Friday.
For Hightower, the no-hitter served as a crowning achievement in a break-out season. The junior leads Florida in starts (26), ERA (1.51), complete games (11) and wins (18).
She arrived in Gainesville with a long list of accolades to her name. A product of Monticello, Florida, she won the Florida Class 2A Pitcher of the Year twice — 2015 and 2017.
Hightower posted a 4-1 record with a 2.16 ERA in 2019, 10th lowest for a freshman in program history.
However, she struggled in her lone Women’s College World Series appearance. She allowed three earned runs in two innings, as UF’s season ended in a 15-3 loss to Alabama.
“I really got to see the raw emotions of postseason,” she said. “Especially being so close to the senior class and how much it meant to them.”
With Kelly Barnhill’s departure, the Gators entered 2020 searching for an ace. Hightower came out of the gate slow and was third on the team in starts, behind Lugo and lefty Rylee Trlicek.
Right when she seemed to turn it around (lowering her ERA to 2.55), the season ended.
In the offseason, Hightower said she devoted more time to her game and received some help from assistant coach Mike Bosch.
“He’s put in as much time with me as he did with Kelly, which is really cool,” she said. “He’s not afraid to be truthful and honest while at the same time being uplifting.”
Hightower started UF’s second game of the 2021 season. It proved to be domination from the get-go as she didn’t relinquish a run in her first two outings. Her ERA dipped below one for her first 11 starts, until March 28.
Her signature effort in that stretch occurred March 5, when Hightower hurled a one-hit shutout against then-No. 16 FSU in a 5-0 win.
Florida’s offense failed to support her at times this season. In 11 of her 26 outings, the offense scored less than four runs.
Second baseman Hannah Adams said it’s always a big relief to know Hightower keeps UF in the game.
When she hits a rough patch, Hightower said she gets out of it by remembering she controls the game, not the other way around. Those hard times happen few and far between though. The most runs she has conceded in a game is four.
She benefits from a reliable partner behind the plate — Julia Cottrill. The sophomore appeared behind the plate in 22 of her 26 outings.
“We’ve watched Julia mature as a player and a person,” Hightower said. “She helps us get out of our heads, and I think we help her with that too.”
While Hightower might seem stoic and determined on the field, Adams said she acts anything but that off the circle.
“She’s super funny and joking around all the time,” Adams said.
The right-hander hasn’t given up a hit in her last 13 1/3 innings and appears to be peaking at the perfect time.
The Gators need that excellence if they hope to win the Super Regional this weekend against Georgia to advance to the WCWS, which begins Thursday in Oklahoma City.