Elizabeth Hightower’s first 200-foot stroll from the bullpen came under unexpected duress Friday — the senior leaned towards home plate and stared down the tying run in an unlikely Illinois State rally.
The right-handed senior entered the game in the bottom of the fourth after starting pitcher Natalie Lugo left runners on first and third base with one out. Hightower hit the first batter she faced but escaped the jam by striking out consecutive batters.
Hightower’s nervy performance proved decisive in Florida’s 3-0 victory over Illinois State Friday night in UF’s first game at the USF-Rawlings Invitational in Tampa. The Gators, who won their season opener for the 16th year in a row, held on to an early two-run lead to secure the game.
“I felt pretty good,” Hightower said. “I think the week leading up to this game I really worked hard on trying to spin my riseball a little bit better. Obviously, had some good off-speed pitches, so all around I thought it was pretty good.”
UF catcher Emily Wilkie ignited the offense in the second inning with an infield single and scored on a triple by right fielder Avery Goelz — the second of her 50-game career at UF. Left fielder Kendra Falby followed up with an RBI double in her first at-bat as a Gator to extend the lead to 2-0.
Illinois State threatened in the fourth but was stopped by a dominant Hightower, who earned her first win of the season. She struck out six of the nine batters she faced and didn’t allow a hit for 2.2 innings.
Lugo departed the pitching circle after giving up three singles and two walks in 3.2 innings. Before the fourth-inning scare, she showed flashes of dominance after striking out three batters and inducing five flyouts.
The Gators extended their lead in the sixth frame thanks to an RBI single by Falby to bring in pinch-runner Mia Buffano from third base. Freshman pitcher Lexie Delbrey earned a save after striking out two batters in the seventh inning.
Despite the shutout, some of the Gators’ highly-anticipated players went under the radar.
Senior third baseman Charla Echols, an NFCA All-American, went 0-4 and left the bases loaded with two outs in the second inning. Alabama transfer Skylar Wallace, a 2019 SEC All-Freshman Team, went 1-4 with four runners LOB. Senior outfielder Cheyenne Lindsey also went empty-handed after four trips to the plate.
With the win, the Gators extended the all-time series lead over the Redbirds to 16-2. The last time UF lost against Illinois State was in March 2007, when they dropped two games in the same week.
The Gators return to action Saturday when they face Kansas City at 10:30 a.m. and No.16 Michigan at. 1 p.m. at the USF-Rawlings Invitational in Tampa.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Avery Goeltz.