By Kyle LoJacono
Academy at the Lakes softball is no stranger to the postseason.
The Wildcats (11-4) have made the playoffs every season since becoming fully eligible in 2008. The current squad has already stretched the streak to five straight, but this year the players are out to bring home the program’s first district championship.
“I thought we’d have a lot more experienced players this year,” said sophomore shortstop/pitcher Lauren Evans, a University of South Florida commit. “I knew it was going to be a good season, and I’m really happy to be playing softball again.”
The squad lost one senior, Kallie Shirling who signed to play at Thomas University.
The biggest change comes at the coaching spot, where Jerry English steps in for Jack Shirling, Kallie’s father.
English coached at Land O’ Lakes for 27 years, where he led the Gators to the state finals in 1995 and to three regional finals.
“The number of players is the biggest difference,” English said. “At Land O’ Lakes we had a varsity and junior varsity team. One year at tryouts I had 90 come out.”
Junior shortstop/pitcher Sydney Boynton said English has a more straightforward approach.
“I knew that coach English would go back to basics, which I thought was good because we had some players who could play but the fundamentals were off,” Sydney said. “Our coach last year was a really good coach, and he was actually my travel ball coach, and he was more used to coaching at a different level.”
English said he believes in focusing on fundamentals, especially given the diversity in the talent and experience of his players.
“This year what we have is a mixture of very good athletes who play travel ball to players who have never played before,” English said. “We had three girls learning how to pick up the ball and throw, but they’re young and working hard to get better.”
Those experienced players are also very young.
“I’ve got one senior, Amelia Oliver, and a few juniors,” English said. “Most are sophomores and freshmen, and I’ve got one eighth-grader. Sometimes I have to stop and remind myself how young the players are if they make mistakes. The great thing is they all want to play.”
The methods seem to be working as the Wildcats have clinched the No. 1 seed in the Class 2A-District 4 tournament, which includes a bye to the championship game. The squad twice defeated Hernando Christian, a team that reached the final four last year, to earn the top spot.
Evans has led the way offensively, posting a .644 batting average with 31 RBI, 10 steals, eight doubles and nine triples while striking out only three times. As a pitcher she has a 5-2 record with a 1.05 ERA and 54 strikeouts.
Sydney, who came to the academy as a sophomore from Wharton High, has a 6-2 record with a 2.00 ERA and 61 Ks while hitting .408 with 24 RBI. Her sister Skyler has a .412 batting average with 10 steals.
“I feel like we’re better, and I know our stats and record are better,” Evans said. “I feel like there’s more of a team feeling. I feel like we’ve bonded a little bit more, and it’s probably because we’re winning.”
The players are also excited because an old tormentor is no longer in the Wildcats’ district or region. Canterbury has beaten the academy all 14 times the squads have played, including four years in a row for the district title.
English points out it won’t be easy to make a deep playoff run just because Canterbury is somewhat out of the picture. He illustrated that by describing the Wildcats’ 5-3 loss to Bishop McLaughlin, a team they beat 20-5 earlier this season.
“We did things we shouldn’t and it cost us,” English said. “I told them after that we’re through sneaking up on people. We’ve played well, and now people want to beat us.”
The 2A-4 tournament is at Hernando Christian. The academy plays the winner of the semifinal between the event host and Lecanto Seven Rivers Christian for the championship on April 19 at 4:30 p.m.
–All stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches