Land O’ Lakes softball primed for deep playoff run

Land O’ Lakes High School softball coach Mitchell Wilkins is taking things “one game at a time.”

Despite wrapping up a marvelous regular season (24-2-1), the third-year coach is trying not to get ahead of himself in looking at the pathway to a state title, though he knows his team matches up well against most opponents.

Head Coach Mitch Wilkins has led the Gators to two straight 20-win seasons. The team will compete in the Class 6A FHSAA regionals, starting April 20. (Courtesy of Land O' Lakes Football)

Head Coach Mitch Wilkins has led the Gators to two straight 20-win seasons. The team will compete in the Class 6A FHSAA regionals, starting April 20.
(Courtesy of Land O’ Lakes Football)

The Gators are rolling into the playoffs as one of the state’s hottest teams—reeling off 15 straight wins, many by large margins of victory.

“I think we’re set,” the third-year coach said. “I have in my mind how I want to approach as we go through regionals.”

To win the Class 6A FHSAA (Florida High School Athletic Association) state title, the Gators will have to win five straight games in the process, starting on April 20.

But, Wilkins is careful not to look too far ahead.

“I can’t be distracted by that, because we know what happened last year—we lost in the second round at the districts semifinals and didn’t get to go any further — so we have to look at each game and figure out what’s the best approach for that game before we start looking at a state championship.”

After finishing 24-3 last season—district semifinals’ hiccup aside— Wilkins knew he had an established team with lofty expectations entering the 2016 season.

“We knew we had good players, but we wanted to see how they matched up — and so far so good,” Wilkins said. “We’re really happy with what we have, not only one through nine, but we’ve got weapons on the bench that I can put in and feel just as comfortable having play.”

One player that Wilkins is always comfortable playing is senior ace pitcher Shannon Saile (four no-hitters, 0.66 ERA), who’s struck out 221 batters —which ranks fifth in the state. Her ability to throw all her pitches—fastball, curveball, screwball, riseball— in each quadrant of the strike zone has made the FIU (Florida International University) softball commit a nightmare for opposing hitters.

“She’s been a monster,” her coach said. “She hits both sides of the plate. …She loves to pitch at the bottom of the strike zone.

“She gets a lot of swinging strikes—pitches out of the zone—because the (opposing) girls know they have to be ready and swing early, because she throws so hard.”

Averaging more than two strikeouts for every inning pitched, Saile’s presence in the circle has taken a significant burden off of the team’s defense, Wilkins said.

“Defensively, when I only have to account for one out an inning — that is such a blessing,” the Gators coach said. “That takes a lot of stress off our defense. The most stressful thing they have is waiting to see if somebody’s going to hit the ball and put it in play. …They have to stay on the balls of their feet the whole time, if somebody does hit it.”

Giving the Gators additional assurance heading into the postseason is the emergence of several young players, including two-way freshmen Callie Turner and Shelby Westbrook, and sophomores Brianna Lindner, Ashley Smith and Tia Williams.

“We have a good mixture of youth and veterans,” Wilkins said, noting eight of the team’s 14 players will earn their first varsity letter. “This year, we are better pitching, but we haven’t hit quite as well as we did last year—but we haven’t needed to. In the same respect, we’ve played better competition this year.”

That “better competition” includes Springstead (24-1)— a team the Gators fell to 1-0 in extra innings in the season opener—whom Land O’ Lakes may rematch if both teams reach the regional finals.

“We know they’ve made some improvements since then, and we’ve made some improvements since then, so it’ll probably be a little bit different game,” Wilkins said, adding, “we’re confident we can play with them.”

“We feel — especially with Shannon pitching and our defense, and the emerging offense from our sophomore starters — that we can compete with anybody in the state.”

Land O’ Lakes Gators softball
Head Coach:
Mitchell Wilkins (3rd year)
Record: 24-2-1
Player to watch: Senior pitcher Shannon Saile (15-2 W-L, 0.66 ERA, 221 Ks, four no-hitters)

“Shannon’s been great. She’s done everything we’ve asked her to do and more. She elevated her game a couple summers ago when she realized she had the opportunity to be the No. 1 pitcher. She added some miles per hour to her pitching speed and worked on her different pitches to be that dominant pitcher. She has worked hard to become that.” –Coach Mitchell Wilkins

Sophomore sluggers: Brianna Lindner (.375 avg., 4 HRs, 26 RB)
Tia Williams (.463 avg., 4HRs, 30 RBI)
Ashley Smith (.443 avg., 2 HR, 16 RBI)
X-Factor: Freshman Shelby Westbrook (29 runs scored, 16 stolen bases)

“Shelby has really emerged as a weapon just with her speed. She creates a lot of havoc when she’s on base. All she has to do is put the ball in play, and it’s a really good opportunity for her to get on base.” –Coach Mitchell Wilkins

Published April 20, 2016

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