MONTICELLO – When the recruiting letter came in the mail, Aucilla Christian pitcher Elizabeth Hightower couldn’t help but be floored.
Michigan. The 2005 NCAA national champion and NCAA Tournament regular for two straight decades wanted her services.
If she chooses to head to Ann Arbor, it won’t be for another four years. Hightower is just a freshman, but her ability in the circle has her jumping up the ranks of prospect lists.
“I was talking to (Alabama and Team USA pitcher) Jackie Traina at a camp one time and she said she got her first letter in ninth grade,” Hightower said. “When I got the letter from Michigan, I just thought it was really cool. It was ‘Whoa.’ I’ve just been working really hard. And I guess they just see something.”
Aucilla won its second-round playoff game against Munroe on Tuesday afternoon, 15-0 in four innings. The Warriors (18-8) are attempting to get back to the FHSAA Class 2A state championship game, where they lost 1-0 last year.
Hightower, after picking up the win in the regional semifinal to move to 12-5, is a big reason why. In addition to Michigan, currently third-ranked in the country this season, South Florida and Jacksonville have also offered. And that figures to be just the start of what could be a heavily mailed four years of high school.
“At first I was really overwhelmed,” Hightower said. “I thought, ‘I need to commit now. I need to find a school I’m going to go to before the money is out.’ But then I calmed down. Now I’ll just look at my options. When I first started, I thought softball would just be for fun. Now I have to look at every single school and find what I like about it. It’s a lot on a ninth grader.”
Hightower, who began playing softball at age 9, had been playing club softball for Tallahassee Merchants before switching to Sante Fe Inferno. She was part of a pitching triumvirate for Aucilla last year, but with Whitney Stevens graduated has been leading the pitching charge along with fellow freshman Abigail Morgan.
“Elizabeth’s presence in the circle, she shows absolutely no emotion,” Warriors coach Becky Lauth said. “If someone gets a hit off her or hits a homerun, no, the more hits off her the madder she gets. She comes back and it’s coming 10 miles per hour harder.”
Warriors sophomore Kelly Horne, who sometimes catches Hightower, is being recruited by Troy, and she can’t help but appreciate that major softball programs notice someone coming out of a small, private rural school.
“Especially as a freshman, but she’s such a really good pitcher,” Horne said. “I have so much respect for her. And I have a feeling we might be playing each other in college ball one day. It’s exciting and it’s nerve-racking.”
Aucilla put up 15 quick runs on nine hits in its regional semifinal, with freshman Carly Joiner hitting a first-inning homerun as part of her two-hit, three-RBI day. Hightower and Morgan combined for nine strikeouts and just one hit allowed.
The Warriors are still a young group, but they firmly believe that in one of the years ahead Aucilla will be bringing home the first state title in school history in any sport.
“We feel like this is our year,” said Horne, who had two hits and two RBI in the win. “As long as we play together, come out and hit the ball, and play to the best of our ability, we should come out with a state championship.”
Should Aucilla get past its regional final game, it would face powerhouse Canterbury in the state semifinal, the same team that handed the Warriors a 1-0 loss in last year’s state final.
And every game this year, Aucilla has called whatever opponent it plays “Canterbury.”
“Realistically for us, the state championship is the (state semifinal) because we’d have to play Canterbury,” Lauth said. “If we can get through that and stay focused, the second game is ours. Getting through that first game, the girls have nothing to lose, just like last year. We’ve never won it, so we’re just going in confident and hoping we can take it.”
Aucilla Christian 15, Munroe 0 (4 inn.)
Munroe 000 0XXX — 0 1 2
Aucilla 361 5XX X — 15 9 1
WP: Elizabeth Hightower (12-5). LP: Jeri Sloan
Munroe: Jeri Sloan (LP – 2 IP, 9 R, 8 ER, 8 H, 3 BB, 2 K); Emilee Harris (1 IP, 5 R, 4 ER, 1 H, 4 BB, 0 K) 1-2. Aucilla: Elizabeth Hightower (WP – 2 IP, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 H, 0 BB, 4 K) 1-3, 2 R; Abigail Morgan (2 IP, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 H, 2 BB, 5 K); Carly Joiner 2-2, 3 RBI, 2 R, BB; Kelly Horne 2-2, 2 RBI, 2 R, 1 BB; Ashlyn Rogers 2-3, 4 RBI, 1 R, 2B; Emma Witmer 1-2, RBI; Taylor Copeland 1-2, 3 R, BB
Records: Munroe (13-15), Aucilla (18-8). Next game: Aucilla vs. TBD, Region 1-2A finals