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Friday June 6, 2014 'She was with us!' -- Gators played for Heather

Updated: 9:23pm, June 6

Heather GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As she fought back tears late Tuesday night, junior Lauren Haeger told of how she and some Florida softball teammates were standing in the outfield during batting practice the day before -- as in Monday; as in the first day of UF’s College World Series championship round against Alabama -- when a butterfly fluttered past.

Not just a butterfly.

"It was yellow," Haeger said. "It had to be a sign."

Heather Braswell loved yellow. Those yellow flowers the Gators wore as hair ties this season -- and were quite bright and prominent on ESPN the last couple weeks -- were in her honor. So were the "rally" Twizzlers the UF players twirled in the dugout. And the watermelon Sour Patch candy they chomped on.

Heather loved those, too.

And the Florida softball team -- this one and the five before it -- loved Heather. In 2009, Coach Tim Walton's program “adopted” her through the Friends of the Jaclyn Foundation, an organization that pairs pediatric cancer patients with college and prep athletic teams. She sat with them during games, visited in their clubhouse and threw out the ceremonial first pitch of the 2014 season (above) -- the one that ended with UF’s first NCAA softball title.

Heather, though, wasn’t there to see it. She died March 25 due to complications from a brain tumor. For more than five years, her cancer was in remission, but the disease returned last fall.

The Gators played in her memory.

“She was with us,” sophomore catcher Aubree Munro said. “Ask anyone on this team. She was here.”

The Braswell spirit was alive with the Gators; in more ways than one. Heather’s mother Terri was in Oklahoma City to watch UF win its five games by a combined score of 32-6 and sweeping Alabama in the best-of-three national championship series.

heather's momAfter UF’s 6-3 title-clinching victory Tuesday night, Terri was summoned into the middle of the post-game celebration and swarmed by the Gators (picture right).

“Heather was our friend and that’s what makes it so emotional,” Haeger said. “To have done this with her here would have been great, but we all really tried to focus on playing for something bigger than ourselves. That was our drive. Heather was that drive.”

When the team showed up at Pressly Stadium Wednesday night for its national championship pep rally, the initials “HB” were etched on the field behind the pitcher’s mound.

The last time those letters were on the field, the Gators held a moment of silence for Heather at their first home after her passing.

This time, she was part of a celebration.

A huge from-the-heart part.

“There was a power in just knowing that she was there with us. When we were struggling and someone got a base hit ... that was Heather,” sophomore second baseman Kelsey Stewart said. “I’m sad that it took something like that to find something bigger to play for, but if we had to have something inspire us it was going to be Heather and now we’re all thrilled to have done it for her.”

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