Land O’ Lakes state title bid falls short

The score wasn’t indicative of how closely the game was played. At least that’s the opinion of Land O’ Lakes varsity softball head coach Mitch Wilkins on his team’s 5-0 loss to Plantation American Heritage in the Class 6A FHSAA (Florida High School Athletic Association) state semifinals on May 6 in Vero Beach.

“I thought we played right even with them,” Wilkins said with authority. “Their bloop hits fell in and ours didn’t.”

Four of the Gators’ top hitters return next season, including sophomore Brianna Lindner, who led the team in home runs (6) this season. (Photos courtesy of Land O' Lakes Softball)

Four of the Gators’ top hitters return next season, including sophomore Brianna Lindner, who led the team in home runs (6) this season.
(Photos courtesy of Land O’ Lakes Softball)

Missed opportunities to score runs in the second, fifth and seventh innings handcuffed the Gators (27-3-1) from mounting a rally against American Heritage (26-2), the eventual Class 6A state champs.

Though Wilkins believes his squad matched up well with the Patriots, he acknowledged American Heritage was likely the best all-around team the Gators faced all year.

“I’d say their pitching was pretty close to Springstead (High), but hitting wise, I thought they were a little bit better than anyone we’ve faced other than maybe River Ridge,” the third-year Gators coach said.

While the Gators fell short in their hopes of winning a state title, advancing to the semifinals, or “Final Four,” will motivate the team to achieve even more success next year, Wilkins said.

“Getting the girls together and making the trip, it put a taste in their mouth that I think they’re looking to get back there,” he said. “We’re disappointed for the outcome, but in the same respect, we’re really excited and really wanting to get at it again.

“The girls were really looking forward to this season, because they knew they weren’t going to stop in the district (playoffs). They knew they were going to get to the postseason this year. They couldn’t wait to get started, and I think we’ll have the same feeling coming into next year knowing there’s a little unfinished business there,” he said.

The Land O’ Lakes Gators lost to Plantation American Heritage 5-0 in the Class 6A state semifinals on May 6 in Vero Beach.

The Land O’ Lakes Gators lost to Plantation American Heritage 5-0 in the Class 6A state semifinals on May 6 in Vero Beach.

Reaching the state tournament again won’t be an easy undertaking, as the Gators will no longer be able to rely upon the dominant arm of ace pitcher Shannon Saile, arguably the best pitcher in Pasco County this season. Saile, a Florida International University softball signee, compiled a 0.78 ERA and 269 strikeouts in 134 2/3 innings in her senior year.

Handling the loss of Saile’s immense production in the circle is something the Land O’ Lakes coaching staff will address in the offseason and into fall ball.

The team’s No. 2 pitcher Callie Turner (0.46 ERA, 79 strikeouts in 46 innings) is likely to step into the starting role now vacated by Saile, assuming the freshman continues to show the promise she displayed in the circle this past season.

“She’s got all the tools that it’ll take to become as dominant as Shannon (Saile) was this year. She just probably needs a little more experience,” Wilkins said about the rising sophomore. “She just needs to mature a little bit and keep her emotions in check, and understand what her job is. She doesn’t have to do everything — we’ve got a solid defense behind us — and she doesn’t have to strike out every batter, she just has to keep the ball off the fat part of the bat.”

Finding quality pitching won’t be the only aspect the Gators’ head coach will focus on as he looks to build an even more successful squad next season. He also plans to tackle the hitting woes the Gators experienced down the stretch of the state playoffs. In their final three games, Land O’ Lakes scored a total of two runs — each scored in one-run victories over River Ridge High and Springstead High, before being shut out by American Heritage.

“In the last three games, we didn’t hit as well as we needed to,” Wilkins said, “so that’s something that we’ll definitely be working on.”

Luckily, the Gators’ top four hitters are returning in Ashley Smith (.449 avg.), Jessie McCallister (.442 avg.), Tia Williams (.433 avg., four home runs) and Brianna Lindner (.373 avg. six home runs.)

However, putting those hitters in the right spots in the batting order, as new faces are added to the lineup, is the challenge going forward.

“We have to figure out how we’re going to realign our lineup,” Wilkins said, “and figure out what the best combination is going to be…and what works best (to) score some more runs later in the season when it counts.”

Key Departures:

  • Pitcher Shannon Saile (0.78 ERA, 269 strikeouts)
  • Catcher Tayler Holt (.347 avg, 14 RBIs)
  • Infielder Kendall Tipton (.311 avg, 12 doubles, 15 RBIs)

Key Returnees:

  • Pitcher Callie Turner (0.46 ERA, 79 strikeouts)
  • Outfielder Jessie McCallister (.442 avg., 14 RBIs)
  • Third baseman Brianna Lindner (.373 avg., six home runs, 29 RBIs)
  • Utility player Ashley Smith (.449 avg., two home runs, 16 RBIs)
  • Shortstop Tia Williams (.433 avg., four home runs, 32 RBIs)

Published May 18, 2016

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