EAST LAKE — We have seen this kind of confident determination before — just last season when Kayla Cox willed her East Bay High softball team to a state championship.
We have seen this kind of greatness before — in 2002 when Countryside chased state and national championships.
We have seen this kind of perfection before — in 2005, when Dani Hofer and Palm Harbor University didn’t lose a single game.
But have we ever seen it look quite this easy?
The East Lake softball team, a collection of big bats and the bigger right arm of ace Alyssa Bache, is perfect heading into Friday’s Class 5A state semifinals in Clermont.
In 28 games, the Eagles have won 28 times.
They have scored 246 runs to their opponents’ 12.
And consider: four of those runs came in the sixth inning of the district final and put East Lake’s back against the wall.
For a few minutes, anyway.
The Eagles responded like they always do, with force.
They sent 14 batters to the plate in the bottom of the inning and scored 10 runs of their own to oust Seminole.
“I came into the dugout after Seminole scored those four runs and I didn’t say anything,” coach Mike Estes said. “I could look at them and tell they weren’t worried or nervous.”
That remains the case.
Last week at practice, the Eagles were a loose bunch as always.
You half-expected, considering the laughing/joking to softball ratio, to find Bache flipping burgers in the outfield while shortstop Hayley Davis and catcher Sydney Dinelli set up the Slip ’N Slide on the infield grass.
Which is pretty much how Estes prefers it.
“I think there might be a little tenseness among us, but Coach, he does a real good job relaxing us,” said Davis, whom Estes helped relax by making fun of some of her quotes in the newspaper.
Estes would rather his Eagles joke than choke, so no point dwelling too much on the road ahead — the potential for the school’s first softball championship, the county’s first perfect season since 2005 and the first national title since Countryside topped the USA Today poll in 2002.
Is it working for the team ranked No. 2 nationally by ESPN Rise?
“I think the kids are okay,” he said.
As for Estes, well, there is a little pressure, the kind that comes with having a once-in-a-decade team that has to win.
He has a senior-laden lineup of future college players and the ace pitcher that are a prerequisite for winning a state championship.
“I just hope I don’t screw it up,” he says, a big grin framed by a salt-and-pepper goatee (which may be a little heavier on the salt).
The Eagles have done everything they were supposed to this season, just a little better than many expected.
Their lineup doesn’t have a weak spot, and it’s led by the powerful middle of junior Sarah Schutz, USF signee Dinelli and University of Alabama-Birmingham-bound Davis.
Each player is hitting over .420, has more than 20 RBIs and at least 14 extra-base hits, and has struck out only six times apiece in more than 100 trips to the plate.
Last year, the Eagles rode the arm of the University of Florida-bound Bache and won three 1-0 games on their way to the state semifinals, where they lost to Niceville by the same score.
This year, since the win-or-go-home districts started, the Eagles have won 12-0, 14-4, 15-0, 13-0 and 4-0.
“Our hitting, I think, is just that good; I think it’s 10 times better than last year,” said Davis, though she admits the competition hasn’t been as stiff.
And there’s the big question: with only three games that can even be considered challenging, and one of those a 14-4 victory, are the Eagles prepared for the next big step?
Are they ready for Bartow, Polk County’s prodigious softball factory that has produced seven state championships and is ranked No. 9 in the country?
If they get past the Yellow Jackets, will they be able to handle the last team to beat them, Niceville, which is looming in the top of the bracket?
“I think the games will be closer at state,” said Davis, so yeah, she thinks the Eagles are ready.
Estes said this may be the most carefree and laid-back group he has had, but it is also the most intense.
“When they get to game time, their focus completely changes,” he said. “You can’t hardly talk to them.”
Then again, there’s no need for words, Davis said.
While her teammates know the magnitude of what they are seeking, they also know that every day they walk into the dugout, the same words will be written on the board as a gentle reminder:
Don’t lose the last game of the season.
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.