Down 3-2 in the seventh inning with Florida’s regular-season SEC championship hopes in the balance, Charla Echols hit the ball far and knew it was gone.
The junior blasted a three-run home run to lift the Gators to victory over the Texas A&M Aggies 5-3 Friday and move Florida two wins away from a joint regular-season conference crown.
Head coach Tim Walton was jovial after the game, remarking he had actually overheard Charla Echols bemoaning that her dad asked her when she would “get a hit that matters.”
Nine-spot hitter Cheyenne Lindsey and Hannah Adams both walked to set the scene for a hit that mattered. Moments later, Echols dug into the batter’s box, ready to take advantage of her opportunity to support her team and prove her dad wrong.
“Hey, Mr. Echols, there’s a hit that matters,” Walton said with a smile after the game.
Echols certainly came through, and she mentioned she would have a conversation with her dad, who was in attendance, after the game.
While Echols may have hit the walk-off run that won the game, senior Katie Chronister’s relief defensive performance was absolutely instrumental.
Following a relatively lifeless first inning, the offensive fire quickly erupted from both the Aggies (31-18, 8-14) and the Gators (38-8, 17-5).
An uncharacteristic fielding error from sophomore Florida shortstop Sarah Longley advanced Aggie outfielder Bre Warren to third base. Pitcher Kayla Garcia proceeded to bat her in and granted the Aggies the first run of the game.
Down 1-0, the Gators made a little progress in the bottom of the second inning when they collected two walks from Aggies dual-threat pitcher Makinzy Herzog, but they failed to capitalize with a run.
Fired up to boost their seeding for the upcoming SEC Tournament, the Aggies quickly added two more runs to open a 3-0 lead.
For some teams, a three-run deficit would be disconcerting. The body language Walton and catcher Emilie Wilkie presented, however, indicated otherwise. Little worry appeared in Florida’s eyes as their distance from earning the SEC Championship only seemed to increase.
The Gators came out fiery in the bottom of the third. Cheyenne Lindsey smacked a double, which Adams quickly converted into a run with a base hit of her own. Lindaman brought home Adams, Echols tacked on a base hit and by the end of the third, the Gators were down only 3-2 with the beginnings of a comeback taking shape.
Chronister explained the mindset the Gators utilize to pull out big wins amidst the fantasy of winning the regular-season SEC Championship.
“Just worrying about this game was on everyone’s mind,” Chronister said.
Hightower quickly took care of business after runners scored, but she allowed an abundance of base hits. In her three innings on the mound, the Aggies scored three runs and connected on seven hits.
With two Aggie hitters immediately reaching base in the fourth inning, head coach Tim Walton decided to bring in a new pitcher sooner than he would’ve preferred.
Walton credited Hightower with some good pitches and strong hits by the Aggies but subbed Chronister into the game.
“She’s been able to progress to have moments like that,” Walton said. “Where early in her career, it always seemed that she found a way to give up too many hits or walks. I was really proud of her.”
Chronister pulled off a fabulous performance Friday, allowing zero hits in four innings pitched in a great show of her progress throughout her years at Florida.
“I couldn’t be more proud of Charla’s hit, but we’re not in that game without Katie Chronister’s performance,” Walton said.
The Gators have two more games to complete the sweep of the Aggies and earn a share of the SEC title with Arkansas.
The deciding series for Florida’s conference championship hopes continues Saturday at 4 p.m. The game streams live on SEC Network+.
Contact Julianna Reichenbach at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @Julianna_Reich