College Baseball

Hawks' Hightower rediscovers fun playing baseball

Quincy University catcher Jeff Hightower put the struggles experienced during his junior season away and is leading the Hawks with a ,328 batting average heading into the NCAA Tournament. | H-W Photo/Matt Schuckman
By Herald-Whig
Posted: May. 16, 2019 1:40 am Updated: May. 16, 2019 1:42 am

QUINCY -- Jeff Hightower didn't blame his tools for his trouble.

But to get his head straight, he had to set those tools aside. So last summer came and went without the Quincy University senior catcher picking up a bat. Three full months passed without hitting or playing a game or thinking about what a challenging spring it had been.

"I worked," Hightower said. "I worked out. And I threw. That was about it."

He never really had the itch to take a swing, either.

"That's when I really started working on pitching," Hightower said. "It helped me keep my mind off the hitting part of it."

A clear mind led to a new approach and a return to being one of the most feared hitters in the middle of the lineup.

Heading into the NCAA Division II Midwest Regional, where the sixth-seeded Hawks will face third-seeded Wayne State at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at Robin Roberts Stadium in Springfield, Hightower is hitting a team-leading .328 with 13 home runs, 38 RBIs and a .656 slugging percentage.

"I've religiously stuck to hitting balls to right-center," Hightower said. "Everything I hit is to right-center. It helps me stay on pitches. I got away from that last year, and it's helped me more than I could even express."

Above all else, he found a way to relax.

A year ago, Hightower transferred to QU after Saint Joseph's College closed and was viewed as an impact bat. As a sophomore with the Pumas, he tied for second in the Great Lakes Valley Conference with 18 home runs and piqued the interest of professional scouts, who became enamored with his 6-foot-4 frame and powerful stroke.

At first, Hightower didn't disappoint. He hit four home runs in the first five games last season, including two jacks against preseason No. 1 Delta State. He had at least one hit in eight of the first nine games and was hitting .400 after a seven-game hitting streak.

He didn't get a hit in more than two consecutive games the rest of the season.

Hightower hit just .213 with seven home runs and 20 RBIs. He struck out 60 times in 136 at-bats.

"That was the worst year I ever had," Hightower said. "I really didn't know how to get out of it. (QU coach Josh) Rabe didn't know how to help me get out of it. That isn't on him. He did everything he could."

The best thing either of them did was take playing in a summer collegiate league off the table.

"I think the summer off helped him immensely," Rabe said. "He could kind of refocus on some different things and get away from it. He was a different guy in the fall. He hit well in the fall and ran with it. It helped he was also pitching. It took his mind off it, and he had some success with it.

"I think he started having fun again."

All it took was a little different perspective.

Hightower worked with QU pitching coach Matt Schissel during the offseason to develop his mechanics and see if he could fill a void in the bullpen. The ability to pop a fastball at 92-94 mph helped do that.

Hightower has made 10 appearances out of the bullpen, fashioning a 1-1 record with a 6.23 ERA in 13 innings. He's struck out 16 and walked six and gives the Hawks a hard-throwing option in tournament play when bullpens can get taxed.

"I've gotten to see things from the pitcher's perspective, and that helps a lot," Hightower said. "Not only on the catching side, but on the hitting side, too. It's been a lot of fun."

The game is fun again, too.

"Most fun in my life," Hightower said.

The Hawks are having fun, as well. Although they didn't win last weekend's GLVC Tournament, they did enough to develop some momentum after stumbling over the final two weeks of the regular season.

"We didn't play our best ball at the end of the year, kind of struggled for a while," Hightower said. "The last two games we kind of got back on it. I think we're back to our old ways."

The mojo is back.

"It's absolutely back," Hightower said. "We're ready to go."