Gators softball: Florida opens series against Auburn with walk-off win in extra innings

Ainslie Lee
The Gainesville Sun

Thursday night at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium was a blast from the past. The Florida Gators softball team held "Throwback Thursday," which featured never-before-seen retro uniforms and other nostalgic initiatives, including a video of Florida's players struggling to identify a picture of a floppy disk.

Little did the Gators know, the night wouldn't just look like a throwback, but it'd feel like one too as Florida (27-9, 5-5 SEC) and the visiting No. 19 Auburn Tigers (28-11, 6-4 SEC) found themselves in a tight, pitching duel that mirrored games of years past.

Though it required extra innings, the No. 15 Gators finally came away with a 3-2 win in the bottom of the eighth inning in front of an energized home crowd, giving Florida its first series-opening win of conference play this season.

"The energy in the eighth was contagious," Florida pitcher Elizabeth Hightower said. "You just knew we were going to get it done."

Here's how it happened.

Hightower, Penta duke it out from the circle

Hightower, a fifth-year veteran, got the nod from head coach Tim Walton, which was to be expected given the recent struggles of sophomore Lexie Delbrey. She gave up six runs in the series opener to South Carolina last weekend.

And in her 16th start of the season, Hightower didn't disappoint. She pitched seven innings of regulation and held the Tigers to four hits and two runs, while also tallying three strikeouts.

Florida Gators pitcher Elizabeth Hightower (22) pitches the ball during the game against the Auburn Tigers at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium at the University of Florida in Gainesville, FL on Thursday, April 6, 2023. [Matt Pendleton/Gainesville Sun]

"I think I made four mistakes tonight and they hit them," Hightower said. "Just have to limit that, throw my pitches and mix speeds and do my best to uplift Lexie, because I've been through every high and every low. I just tell her it's part of it."

Hightower was relieved by senior southpaw Rylee Trlicek at the start of the eighth inning. Trlicek polished off the game for the Gators with 1.0 inning of work that saw her give up one hit while also striking out one batter.

Meanwhile, the opposing starter was Auburn junior Maddie Penta, who entered the game with a 0.89 ERA.

"That's a really good pitcher we faced tonight," Walton said of Penta. "The pitch that she's showing, no matter how we practice that thing, if it's where it was tonight, you're not going to hit it. It was really good."

Like Hightower, Penta also stayed put in the circle for seven innings, giving up three hits, three runs, walking three and striking out 12.

By the bottom of the seventh inning, Penta was still reaching 72 mph, while also mixing in changeups in the 50s.

"You've gotta tip your hat to her," Florida redshirt junior Skylar Wallace said. "She throws three different speeds and that throws hitters off. So she does a good job of mixing speeds and keeping us on our toes."

Gators rally in the bottom of the eighth

The Gators put together a two-run inning in the bottom of the third to take a 2-0 lead.

In the top of the fifth and seventh innings, two plays would cost Florida as a collision in centerfield allowed an Auburn hit to fall and scratch across a run, followed by Auburn sophomore Icess Tresvik knocking a solo home run over the left field wall.

The Gators and Tigers would stay knotted up through the bottom of the seventh and the top of the eighth, setting the stage for Florida to walk it off in extras.

Leading off the bottom of the eighth was Wallace, who had struck out twice heading into her third at-bat. Yet instead of letting her frustration get the best of her, Wallace sat back in the box while Penta delivered a five-pitch walk to put the game-winning run on base.

"You can tell by the take, she was ready to hit," Walton said of Wallace's final at-bat. "The ball was out of the zone. But it's very mature to take that pitch and not try to win the game. And I think that's the key to being successful in pressure moments. ... Just being able to take what they give you versus force it."

Following Wallace's walk, the Gators ended up loading the bases as sophomore Kendra Falby battled a 12-pitch at-bat before taking a free base and senior Charla Echols was intentionally walked.

Walsh delivers as hot streak continues

Before Florida sophomore Reagan Walsh ever stepped foot on campus, there was buzz about what she'd bring to the lineup.

Fans saw a glimpse of that in her rookie season, which saw her bat .268 with six home runs.

Walsh has shown no signs of a sophomore slump, hitting .344 with four home runs through the first 36 games. Walsh has been on a tear through the last five games, knocking six hits, two home runs and eight RBIs in her last 16 at-bats.

Like Wallace, coming into her final at-bat, Walsh was emptyhanded with a 0-for-3 night. Yet she was still making solid contact.

"Dude, you're making good contact, you've just gotta find holes," Wallace told Walsh between innings. "You've had one of the best swings all night, just trust that."

Walsh finally found her hole in the bottom of the eight inning as she delivered the walk-off hit that allowed Wallace to score from third and the Gators to win.

"I've seen her work and just the growth she's had, I think she's known you're not going to be perfect at all times," Wallace said of Walsh. "But each at-bat was a new at-bat for her and I'm glad she was able to move on and just find a pitch and come out big for us in that last inning right there."