CLERMONT — At the end, the sheen of dominance East Lake High School had acquired during its spectacular regular season was replaced by the vacant stares of the shocked.
Last year, when the Eagles lost in the Class 5A state softball semifinals, they were devastated. But the loss spurred them to a perfect regular season in 2011.
But Friday night’s 4-0 loss to Bartow, with a potential No. 1 national ranking and unblemished record on the line, crushed them.
There was the inexplicable sense that the Yellow Jackets played with more passion and the inescapable feeling that something unlikely ever to be recovered was lost.
Until Friday, this season had the special air of inevitability, complete with the breaks and luck that perfection requires. Still, the road for East Lake to win its first state title was filled with obstacles.
The Eagles, who entered the game 28-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation by ESPN Rise, faced No. 6 Bartow. The Yellow Jackets have won seven state titles, including five straight from 2001-06.
This time, the breaks did not go East Lake’s way.
Eagles starter Alyssa Bache was not her usual dominant self. The Florida signee, who had a 0.36 ERA before Friday, allowed seven hits, a season high. She also hit two batters and walked two more.
“It just wasn’t our night,” Bache said.
Bartow (28-1) made things uncomfortable for Bache by crowding the batter’s box.
“Bache is a good pitcher and we had to find a way to handle her speed,” Yellow Jackets coach Glen Rutenbar said. “We decided to get right up on the plate to take away her outside pitch and hopefully take away some of her speed.”
In the fourth inning, Bartow scored twice, capitalizing on an error and one hit batter to go ahead 2-0.
Normally, that would not faze the Eagles, who have been known to produce big innings on offense.
But East Lake struggled against Yellow Jackets starter Lauren West, who used her offspeed pitches to keep the Eagles off balance.
East Lake managed just three hits, all singles.
West finished with seven strikeouts and forced 10 fly outs, including the six batters she faced.
“For some reason we weren’t attacking when we needed to and we weren’t patient when we needed to be,” Eagles coach Mike Estes said.
Bartow added two insurance runs in the seventh inning, and East Lake went down in order to end the game.
“For some reason in the big games, we tend to leave a lot of runners on base,” Estes said. “We’ve been loose all year, but maybe we started to press a little.
“By the third or fourth inning we were a little bit more quieter and not talking as much.”