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Saturday, May 08, 2021

Gators surrender walk-off home run against UCF

Florida loses first game against Group of Five opposition

<p>UF third-baseman Charla Echols in conversation with a base coach. Echols notched an RBI-double Wednesday. </p>

UF third-baseman Charla Echols in conversation with a base coach. Echols notched an RBI-double Wednesday.

Karissa Ornelas just needed to make contact with Florida pitcher Elizabeth Hightower’s delivery.

Hightower beamed a fastball high in the zone, Ornelas turned on the pitch and launched it high into the dark Orlando sky as No. 22 UCF earned an 8-6 victory over No. 5 Florida on home soil Wednesday night. 

UCF pitcher Gianna Mancha looked unsettled out of the gate, as she walked the first two Florida batters on base. The Gators squandered a golden opportunity to break the deadlock with a fly-out, strikeout and a groundout. 

The Knights weren’t so feckless in the bottom of the inning. UF pitcher Natalie Lugo started with a four-pitch walk before Georgia Blair smoked a line-drive into right-center for an RBI double.

Junior Jamie Hoover won an impressive battle with Mancha in the top of the second. Hoover ended a gritty nine-pitch at bat with three consecutive foul balls before a slap-single past the third baseman. However, the outfielder fell into a double-play the next sequence, and UCF stood benign in the bottom of the second. 

Florida’s bats ascended from a whimper to a roar in the third inning to blow the game wide open. Leadoff hitters Hannah Adams and Kendyl Lindaman once again worked themselves into scoring position, but Charla Echols continued the rally with an RBI double to right field. 

UCF’s rattled pitching staff next two batters, the latter of which scored another run. Julia Cottrill snuck her 2-RBI double just inside the left foul line before Hoover tacked Florida’s fifth and final run of the inning with a sacrifice fly. However, the senior-laden Knights refused to fold after the first punch and responded with a four-run inning. 

“I love the experience and maturity that they showed,” UCF coach Cindy Ball-Malone said. “They’re supposed to be there, and they’re acting like it.”

Blair continued to torment Lugo, as this time the senior trotted around all four bases with a 2-RBI home run to left field. Lugo stared back into the dark Orlando sky moments later, as Shannon Doherty corked a left-center home run the next at-bat. 

Florida clung to a narrow one-run lead, so coach Tim Walton peered toward his bullpen and selected southpaw Katie Chronister. The flood gates swelled when Chronister allowed the first three batters on base, but she surrendered just one run on a sacrifice fly and the score deadlocked at five. 

On a night characterized by explosive offense, the fourth and fifth innings came and went without a flicker. The two teams combined for just one hit as both pitchers looked more comfortable using their offspeed pitches. 

The Gators gutted out a crucial run in the top of six to snatch a late lead. Cottrill poked a single into back up the middle before Hoover managed to reach an error by the shortstop. 

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Florida loaded the bases with a subsequent single, and Adams hit her sacrifice fly just deep enough to score Cottrill. Hightower entered the game to retire UCF in the bottom of the sixth quickly. 

Hightower entered Wednesday’s contest with a .99 ERA, so even Florida’s narrow one-run lead felt comfortable. 

However, the junior surrendered a lead off single and Jada Cody’s triple before recording an out. She induced a pop-up to short, but Ornelas’ home run wrapped up the ball game.

The Gators will retake the field Friday night for a three-game series against LSU. First pitch will fly at 6 p.m. and will broadcast on SEC Network +.

Contact Declan Walsh at dwalsh@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @declanaw

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