They finally did it.
On May 20, the Land O’ Lakes High Gators unseated powerhouse Plantation American Heritage 3-1, claiming the Class 6A Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSSA) softball championship at Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach.
The achievement marks the first fastpitch title for Land O’Lakes (29-3) and the first for a Pasco County program since Ridgewood High won in 1992.
Making the victory even sweeter: The Gators downed the same team that eliminated them in last year’s state semifinals.
And, it wasn’t the first time this postseason Land O’ Lakes exacted revenge.
The Gators twice beat Wesley Chapel High School — in districts and regionals —after the Wildcats bested them during an April 4 regular season game (2-0 loss).
Besides payback, the championship shows the Gators — in recent years one of the region’s premier softball program — can dethrone a state dynasty; American Heritage (25-4) was making its fourth straight championship game appearance and was trying to win its eighth title overall.
Likewise impressive, the Gators won in comeback fashion.
Trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the sixth inning, Land O’Lakes found timely hitting —base hits by Callie Turner and Tia Williams — and benefitted from Patriot mistakes — hit by pitch, wild pitch— to build the lead for good.
Meanwhile, Turner, the team’s sophomore ace, kept the game within reach from the outset, pitching like she has all season long.
The University of Tennessee commit fired a complete game, allowing just five hits and striking out eight against a potent Patriots lineup (.447 team average, 24 home runs).
The Gators’ championship win culminated a pair of close playoff games.
The day before, on May 19, Land O’ Lakes edged North Fort Myers High 2-0 in the state semifinals.
And, on May 12, the Gators narrowly beat Springstead High 2-0 in the region finals.
For followers of Land O’ Lakes varsity softball, the championship isn’t an utter shock.
But, it’s likely eye-opening after last year’s graduation of Shannon Saile, one of the program’s all-time great pitchers.
Saile — now a freshman standout at Florida International University — amassed 517 strikeouts and a career 1.76 ERA in four seasons. She also compiled 41 wins, 31 complete games, 11 shutouts and five no-hitters in her prep career.
Moreover, Gators head coach Mitch Wilkins this season had to replace two key bats in then-seniors Tayler Holt (.347 average) and Kendall Tipton (.311 average).
Projecting forward, a state title repeat in 2018 isn’t out of the question.
Armed with Turner (0.21 ERA, 249 strikeouts) and a budding star in sophomore Shelby Westbrook (2.10 ERA, 58 strikeouts in 43.1 innings), pitching won’t be an issue.
Hitting shouldn’t be a problem, either.
The Gators do lose centerfielder Jessie McCallister (.358 average, 17 RBIs) and outfielder Lexi Turner (.293 average, 19 RBIs).
But, the team returns just about everyone else, including sluggers Tia Williams (.444 average, 24 RBIs), Ashley Smith (.390 average, four home runs, 30 RBIs) and Brianna Lindner (.352 average, two home runs, 22 RBIs).
Not to be overlooked, Wilkins’ mentoring should provide a steadying force, too.
After a 13-13 mark in 2014, the team has since gone a combined 80-9 under Wilkins.
Published May 24, 2017