TARPON SPRINGS — East Lake rightfielder Abby Hess had been practicing extra for this exact scenario.
Bottom of the seventh inning of a scoreless game in the region final against Sickles, East Lake had runners in scoring position with no outs. The Eagles’ chances of scoring and securing a spot in the Class 5A state final four seemed all but certain.
Two straight strikeouts, however, and the Gryphons, suddenly, were one out from extending the game to extra innings and grabbing all the momentum in the process.
That’s when Hess stepped to the plate.
All season, the junior had struggled to find her hitting groove.
“I wasn’t hitting very good at all actually,” she said.
A couple weeks earlier, Hess started taking extra batting practice, spending her weekends hitting with her dad, anything to break out of her slump.
“A lot of working on the outside corner and working to hit to the opposite field,” she said.
Facing a 1-2 count against Sickles’ Chelsea Oglevie, Hess saw the next pitch. It was headed for the outside corner.
She smacked a sharply-hit line drive to the opposite — right — field to win the game.
“I guess that extra work paid off,” she smiled.
Hess is but one of a number of unsung heroes who have helped East Lake (26-2) advance to the state softball semifinals for the second time in school history, first since 1993. The Eagles face Niceville (26-4) at 7 Wednesday night for the right to play in Thursday’s championship.
While Alyssa Bache is striking out batter after batter, and Kirsten Bembnowski is smashing home runs over the fence, and Hayley Davis is diving in the hole at shortstop to field another hard-hit grounder, these are the players behind-the-scenes doing the hidden work.
Kelsey Oonk, Jr., catcher
Oonk was a third baseman and shortstop before arriving at East Lake. She switched to catcher out of necessity as a freshman and was the Eagles’ everyday starter by her sophomore year.
This season, Oonk has established herself as the defensive leader of the Eagles’ infield. She’s proved capable of handling the varying mix of speeds and movement created by Bache. And she’s a natural at the often unseen interplay between catcher and umpire.
“I get nothing but compliments on her from the umpires,” coach Mike Estes said. “Umpires who do D-I colleges and then do our games, they make it a point to come up to me and tell me, ‘she receives the ball and does everything back there as well as any D-I catcher we see.’ ”
Oonk is also a master at handling the East Lake pitching staff, making Estes’ job a bit easier.
“I think I’ve only had three mound visits in 28 games, and that’s mainly because Kelsey will handle it,” he said.
Sarah Schutz, So., third base
Schutz has been one of the Eagles’ most consistent hitters, though her spot in the lineup changes frequently. She’s batted in the No. 2 spot, at the end of the lineup, or anywhere in between.
“She’s just excellent with the bat,” Estes said. “Handles the bat well, bunts well. Anything we need, she can handle it.”
And like Oonk, Schutz was forced to learn an unfamiliar position coming into high school and has excelled as one of the steadiest players on the field.
“I’m kind of short (5-foot-3) for over there, but I guess that’s okay,” she said. “I’ve always liked diving and laying out for grounders.”
Alyssa Weaver, Jr., second base
From her spot at the top of the order, Weaver is the fourth-leading batter in the East Lake lineup. Her ability to set the table for the Eagles’ power hitters — Bembnowski, Davis and Sydney Dinelli — has greatly improved the team’s run production.
“I think Alyssa’s hitting about 100 points, maybe 125 points better than last season,” Estes said.
Erin Rawls, Jr., first base
Rawls is another player hitting well above her average from a year ago, according to Estes. She provides a steadying presence at first for the Eagles and another dangerous bat at the back of the lineup.