Former Florida softball right-handed pitcher Elizabeth Hightower departs Gators softball reminiscent of those who helped guide her along her softball journey.
Hightower faced ups and downs before her time in Gainesville and throughout her career. In the end, she wasn’t ready for her journey to be over.
"The impact that people have made on me is just when it all ended, I wasn't really missing softball,” Hightower said. “I was just missing the people.”
She signed with Athletes Unlimited to play professional softball June 2. Hightower also chose to take on a coaching role as a graduate assistant at Florida Atlantic University.
The Florida ace ended her collegiate career with an earned run average of 2.46 and 427 strikeouts on the mound.
Hightower’s parents made sacrifices to help pursue her softball dream when she was younger.
Her father, James Hightower, was in the Navy. Her mother, Gretna Hightower, played a pivotal role in staying home to care for her.
"I deployed six times to the Middle East… I volunteered because softball was so expensive,” James Hightower said. "Her momma got her up every morning dressed for school, made her lunch, picked her up and took her to pitching lessons."
Hightower pursued her dream in high school and worked hard to become a high-level recruit, she said.
She was named Florida Class 2A Pitcher of the Year in her junior year in 2017 and also made the All-State First Team for the second time since her sophomore year in high school career. Hightower ended her senior year with a 1.38 ERA.
She faced tremendous adversity before she started her collegiate career at UF. Hightower came close to leaving the game of softball during her junior year of high school in 2017 after severe injuries. However, she chose not to give up on her dream.
"She had meniscus, ACL and MCL, which is really difficult to come back from when you have the big three like that," James Hightower said. "A lot of people would have given up; it's a tough injury to come back from, especially as a pitcher."
She continued with her career despite the injury history and began her freshman season at Florida in 2019.
Hightower closed out her first year as a Gator on the Southeastern Conference All-Freshman Team. She became the first freshman since Kelly Barnhill to record a complete-game shutout after blanking the No. 17 Arkansas Razorbacks April 6.
“I am so proud of everything that [Hightower] has been able to accomplish in her career at Florida both on and off the field,” Barnhill said. “She came to Florida, like many of us do, as a wide-eyed and soft-spoken freshman, and left a strong and confident woman.”
Hightower made nine appearances in the 2020 season and started in three games in the 27 games they played.
She grew with confidence and focused on who she wanted to be as a pitcher during the offseason with the help of head coach Tim Walton, Hightower said.
"We were able to sit down and have a tough conversation, and just say, early into my career, he was like what you're doing isn't going to cut it," Hightower said. "I owe a lot of my success to just that one conversation we had."
Hightower logged a 2.43 ERA and 133 strikeouts, a 17-9 record in 167 innings pitched during her final season at Florida. She recorded her third complete-game shutout of her career against USF April 20.
“I got so much work in on defense that just made me a better pitcher all around, being able to cover my position and know all the rules,” Hightower said. “Even stuff that doesn't involve pitchers that we were working on and that I know, that is really going to help me in my next step going pro.”
UF ended their season in game six of the NCAA Regionals to Stanford.
"When we lost regionals, I was already accepting the fact that I wasn't an athlete anymore,” Hightower said. “For two weeks, I was like, I'm not an athlete anymore; I'm not a softball player anymore.”
Hightower had not yet received an offer to play professionally after the loss. She began to consider the thought she may never play softball again, she said.
Then, Athletes Unlimited called.
"I got the phone call about this Athletes Unlimited, and I was like, yes, I have to do it," Hightower said. "I'm just happy I get to keep going in my career and just keep being a pitcher and a softball player."
With the decision to play professional softball with Athletes Unlimited, Hightower must adjust to a new league and new rules.
The league records points for each individual player. The points are used to rank players each week. Every inning played is 10 points and a win is worth 50 points.
Each out is four points added to a pitcher’s individual stats and 10 points are deducted for each run they allow.
"One thing here is I have to move the ball a lot more; it's a bigger strike zone than college,” Hightower said. “It's way bigger, and that means hitters are going to swing the bat more.”
Hightower leaves behind her legacy at Florida with new opportunities and experiences ahead.
Athletes Unlimited starts its softball season July 28. The team will be competing for five weeks at Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont, Illinois.
Alyssa Britton-Harr is a second-year journalism major and a sports reporter for The Alligator. In her free time, she enjoys cheering on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and spending time with her friends.