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PLANT CITY — Chemistry was more than a benign buzzword for arguably the best softball team in Plant City High history. Led by four seniors, these Raiders seemed to string together hits, chants and wacky rituals with equal proficiency.
After Tuesday night’s Class 5A region final, they strung together a few tears.
Before approximately 500 fans, many of whom sat in portable bleachers set up along the entire outfield fence, the Raiders (23-7) scored three first-inning runs off nationally ranked Bartow, then watched their bats go silent in a 4-3 defeat.
Bartow, a seven-time state champion, advances to next week’s state tournament in Clermont.
“The first thing I said to them — the only thing I said to them — was, there isn’t another team I would’ve wanted to go this far with,” eighth-year Raiders coach Heidi Kouveras said. “I still believe that we were the better team out here, I think we just fell before they did.”
The Yellow Jackets (26-1) scored the winner on leadoff hitter Brittani McNeil’s sixth-inning, two-out triple to the left centerfield gap that scored Marissa Ortiz. A .420 slap hitter coming in, McNeil finished 4-for-4 with two runs and an RBI. She was thrown out trying to stretch the triple into a homer.
“She took advantage of the pitching and that’s what a good hitter does,” Kouveras said. “She outslapped my slappers, and that was the biggest thing.”
McNeil scored her first run in the first, when she led off with a single, stole second and scored on Emily Sanders’ triple to right. But Plant City answered with three consecutive hits to open the bottom of the inning.
The third: right-handed ace Mackenzie Audas’ bunt-single that scored Kristen Wyckoff. Four batters later, Kacie Booth hit a two-out, bases-loaded single that gave the host a 3-1 lead.
Plant City totaled three hits off Bartow ace Lauren West (17-1) the rest of the way. Bartow scored twice in the fifth, getting the tying run when Audas (seven IP, eight hits, 11 strikeouts, four walks) hit Kimmie Booker with the bases loaded.
“We just didn’t hit like we should have,” said No. 9 hitter Kellsey Bruner (1-for-3), who collected six hits in the postseason.
“You can’t score in the first inning and not score again,” Kouveras added. “They knew coming in to it that we were going to have to go hard the whole game, which they did, they just got too overzealous with their swings.”