Softball: No. 4 Florida Gators win first SEC series of the year behind sixth-inning rally

Ainslie Lee
Gator Sports

The fourth-ranked Florida Gators softball team clinched its first SEC series of the season after beating Mississippi State 3-0 on Monday night at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium, rebounding from its 1-0 loss on Sunday. 

The Gators (23-2, 2-1 SEC) and Bulldogs (16-10, 1-2 SEC) found themselves in a pitcher's duel early in the game as Florida's veteran righty Elizabeth Hightower and Mississippi State junior Aspen Wesley helped hold the game scoreless through the first five and a half innings. 

Here are three takeaways from the game.

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Speed and power helps Gators rally

It wasn't until Florida's sophomore left fielder Katie Kistler came through as the game's catalyst with a gem-of-a-throw to the plate, where sophomore catcher Emily Wilkie made the tag, erasing the Bulldogs' opportunity to take the lead in the top of the sixth inning. 

"It just gave us the momentum that we needed," junior shortstop Skylar Wallace said of the play. "That just gave us a little kick I think that we needed. That's not an easy play to make. To throw the ball on the nail right there.

"That's exciting. You work for that, but you have really slim chances for that play to be made." 

Following Kistler's dime, which juiced the Gators' dugout, Florida found its offensive stride when freshman Kendra Falby ripped a two-strike offering from Wesley to the centerfield warning track.

As the ball ricocheted off the wall, leaving Mississippi State's outfielders scrambling, Falby was waved home by head coach Tim Walton and safely slid into home plate, scratching across the first run of the night and giving the Gators a 1-0 advantage. 

"The past two games haven't been exactly what I wanted," Falby said. "So just going off of Katie throwing that girl out at home, it was more so... I'm going to show up. And I'm going to do this for Katie, I'm going to do this for the team."

But Florida's bats didn't quit there. 

After fifth-year second baseman Hannah Adams took a free base, Wallace raked a pitch over the centerfield wall, good for a two-run home run and her fourth long ball of the season. 

Falby and Wallace's homers were all the Gators needed to seal the win, as Hightower and Florida's defense polished Mississippi State off in the top of the seventh inning. 

Elizabeth Hightower tosses complete-game shutout

After a turbulent outing against the Bulldogs on Saturday, Hightower immediately visited Florida's pitching coach Mike Bosch in his office. 

"We watched video of me from last fall and prior games to figure out what was happening," Hightower said. "A little bit of mechanics were off on Friday. So Saturday I worked in the bull pen working mechanics and tonight I came out and it was more fluid."

Hightower finished her appearance on Saturday after 4.0 innings of action that saw her give up six hits, three runs, three walks and four strikeouts. 

But after analyzing and correcting her mechanical mishaps, Hightower came out on Monday night and dealt a complete-game shutout, allowing just four hits and walking just one batter. 

Yet Hightower was quick to credit her defense after Monday's win. 

"I only had three strikeouts, so balls were put into play almost every single at-bat," Hightower said. "My defense had my back and made great plays... It felt like a team effort tonight. They really had my back.

University of Florida's Kendra Falby (27) and Hannah Adams (1) celebrate after Falby scored on a in the park home run against Mississippi State in the rubber match game of the weekend series, at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium, Gainesville, March 14, 2022. The Gators beat the Bulldogs.

Confidence is key for Gators moving forward

Walton hit it on the head on Saturday when he said that anytime you get a win in the SEC, it's special. 

In a league as competitive as the SEC, you take what you can get — even when you know you're capable of more. And that's the case for the Gators following the their opening SEC series win. 

The Gators didn't face a ton of adversity before heading into conference play, Walton said. 

Walton did his best to caution his team about what was ahead.

"I got after them about what this is going to be like," Walton said. "Really trying to scare the heck out of them so they could just go out and rally together and play well." 

While the Gators battled back from a 3-0 deficit on Friday night to win 8-4, they couldn't muster a victory on Sunday. 

"We need to handle adversity... getting out, being down," Walton said. "We need to handle that a little better."

The Gators return to action on Wednesday night at 6 when they host the Stetson Hatters for a midweek matchup.