As Julia Cottrill roped a high fly-ball toward the left field line, the 850 fans in attendance peered toward the outfield fence with baited breath to see where her blast would land.
LSU left-fielder Ciara Briggs locked her eyes on the yellow dot that streaked through the air as she dashed toward the warning track. She leaped and just missed as the ball landed a few feet beyond the fence.
Katie Seashole Pressly stadium erupted as Cottrill’s first-career home run drove in three Gators and secured a 5-0 for Florida Saturday night.
Florida’s defense rallied behind its pitcher from the opening pitch, as center-fielder Cheyenne Lindsey flashed the leather with a diving catch for the game’s opening out. JaimieHoover added a pair of exceptional plays in left-field and second-baseman Hannah Adams saved a base hit with a running grab into the outfield.
But after a blown save Wednesday against UCF, Hightower looked rattled. The junior missed the zone wildy and allowed back-to-back walks. Hightower labored on the mound as sweat poured down and exasperated expressions defined her face.
Cottrill and coach Tim Walton strode to the mound to coax Hightower back into the strike zone, but Hoover came to the rescue from left field. The junior fielded the base-hit, crow-hopped and fired an inch-perfect bullet to home, miles ahead of the LSU baserunner.
Cottrill ended the inning, and an animated Hightower clenched her fist in relief.
Third-baseman Charla Echols secured a running grab against the dug-out to start off the second, and Hightower cruised through the rest of the frame.
Hightower allowed just two hits and one walk after a shaky first inning. Walton attributed her rebound to a healthy mix of pitches and a reliance on her teammates.
Hoover catalyzed the Gators on both sides of the ball, as she led off the third inning with a piercing double down the left field line. Lindsey dashed out of the batter’s box to beat out an infield single and swiped second to move two Gators into scoring position.
Adams dug into the batter’s box during a crucial, one-out opportunity. She drove straight through the fastball and knocked the pitch back up the middle. The hurried throw from center-field landed high, and two Florida runners scrambled across the plate.
“Hannah (Adams) is as consistent as anyone on this team,” Walton said.
Hightower continued to work the zone and induce weak contact from the Tigers’ hitters. Florida cruised through the fourth inning with a triad of benign fly balls, and the fifth inning with three weak ground balls.
Florida led off the sixth-inning with back-to-back looping singles, before Cottrill’s three-run blast wrapped up the Gators’ victory. LSU’s Raeleen Gutierrez corked a seventh-inning double to spark a faint rally, but Hightower recorded a strikeout to end the game.
The Gators will return to action against the Tigers Saturday. First pitch will fly at 5 p.m. and broadcast on ESPN.
Contact Declan Walsh at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @declanaw