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PLANT CITY — They shoehorned themselves into the bleachers, planted lawn chairs behind home plate, stood alongside the fence lines or watched from behind the outfield wall.
By game time, practically half of Plant City had shown up for Friday’s Class 5A region semifinal. The other half, it seemed, was being struck out by Raiders ace Mackenzie Audas.
The University of Central Florida signee fanned 12 and escaped a knuckle-whitening jam in the seventh to lift the host to a 2-1 victory against crosstown foe Durant (21-9). Plant City (23-6) can clinch its first state tournament berth with a triumph Tuesday.
“Well, we didn’t get this far last year and I’m not sure if we’ve ever been this far,” said Audas, whose school hasn’t reached this level of the postseason since 2002. “It’s just really exciting.”
On a windy Friday night, exhilaration was preceded by tension.
Durant, held to one hit over the final six innings, threatened with one out in the seventh when Olivia Cuellar walked and Brooke Freeman reached on an infield error, moving Cuellar to second.
After Raelynn Nichols’ sacrifice moved both runners, Audas — who fanned six consecutive Cougars at one point — threw a fastball that Alyssa Colding grounded to short, ending things.
“I was just trying to stay calm and breathe easy,” Audas said.
Durant, which has lost to Audas three times in the past 21 days, struck first when Jordan Lafave led off the game with a single and ultimately went home on Kelli Tidwell’s base hit. Plant City rallied in the bottom of the inning on Chelsea Hanks’ two-run single up the gap.
Audas didn’t allow another hit until the sixth, increasing her velocity with each inning and continuing her mastery of the Cougars. In four games against Durant, Audas has 52 strikeouts.
“(Audas) is in double digits (for strikeouts) almost every game and that’s what we need from her in order to be secure on the defense and stuff like that,” Raiders coach Heidi Kouveras said. “So as long as my defense has her back, doesn’t make the errors, we’re good to go.”
No. 9 batter Kellsey Bruner had two of Plant City’s six hits, giving her five in the past two contests.