East Lake softball is trying to win its first softball championship and make history this weekend in the Class 5A final four against an opponent that, well, is history.
In 24 years of sanctioned fast-pitch softball, Bartow has been to the playoffs 20 times. The Yellow Jackets are 64-13 in the postseason and have made the state final four 14 times, winning seven championships.
Does undefeated East Lake (28-0) stand a chance?
Well, of course.
While Bartow is the only team to ever win five straight championships, that stretch of titles ended in 2006, and the Yellow Jackets (27-1) haven’t been back to the semifinals since.
In their return, they meet an Eagles team primed for greatness, with a stacked lineup of college-bound seniors led by powerful ace Alyssa Bache, who is backed by an airtight defense.
It won’t be easy. The Eagles are No. 2 in the ESPN Rise national poll, but Bartow is No. 9. In the MaxPreps poll, East Lake is No. 3 and Bartow No. 5.
It is probably the best matchup of the state tournament, and the much-anticipated duel is Friday at 7 at Clermont’s National Training Center.
Five reasons East Lake can win
1. Simple: Bache. The Florida signee is eager and hungry, but most important, she is dominant.
In 142 innings, she has allowed 33 hits and struck out 251. Her ERA is 0.34, and that’s actually inflated because of one bad inning against Seminole.
Bartow sophomore Lauren West is daunting, but not dominant. She has allowed 25 more hits in 27 fewer innings with 102 fewer strikeouts, but she has a great defense behind her.
2. They are ready. The Eagles were all juniors last year when they lost to Niceville in the semifinals, and that usually leads to pretty good things the following year. Pretty great things, even.
3. Coach Mike Estes has done a wonderful job instilling a quiet, calm confidence in the Eagles. There’s also spunky leaders like Hayley Davis and Sydney Dinelli to make sure everyone stays on task, and enough lightheartedness (hello, Amanda and Alyssa Weaver) to keep things from getting too tight. It’s a nice mix.
4. These girls can hit, and there really isn’t an easy out in the lineup. But the hardest outs are in the middle, where 3-4-5 hitters Sarah Schutz and the Killer Ds — Davis and Dinelli — are batting a combined .485 with 30 doubles, eight triples, seven home runs and 101 RBIs.
Most amazing? The last time East Lake played a game where all three of those players didn’t have a hit was March 11.
Davis is working on a 25-game hitting streak. Dinelli’s is at 21. And Schutz has an RBI in eight straight, with at least two RBIs in six of those.
That’s really nice when you are surrounded by high-average hitters like Alyssa Weaver (.430), Marisa Palumbo (.414), Kelsey Oonk (.405) and Erin Rawls (.392).
5. This is just to help Estes sleep a little easier, but there’s this: when a Pinellas County softball team goes into the state final four ranked in the top three in the country, they are 2-0 when it comes to winning a state title. And Countryside even won a national title in 2002.
And one more thing for Estes to digest with his warm glass of milk at bedtime: Bartow has never beaten a Pinellas County team in the postseason.
(Now, just don’t tell him the sample for that stat is just one game. PHU won its first state title in 1999 by beating the Yellow Jackets in the final.)
Five reasons East Lake may not win
1. Most of the Eagles weren’t even born the last time Bartow lost a state semifinal in 1993. Since then, they are 11-0.
2. Coach Glen Rutenbar has 675 career wins and all those state titles for a reason, so don’t think he has been sitting back marveling at East Lake’s stats.
3. Bache hasn’t seen a lineup like this in 2011. The Yellow Jackets are hitting .420 as a team with more doubles, triples and homers than the vaunted Eagles.
4. East Lake hasn’t been in too many pressure-packed situations, so if it’s a 0-0 game into the seventh inning, how will the Eagles react?
5. If Bartow’s 2-3-4 hitters outperform East Lake’s 3-4-5 hitters, that won’t be good. If you thought East Lake’s middle was monstrous, well, you may reconsider.
Leadoff hitter Brittany McNeil (.427) is a pain, but No. 2 hitter Shelby Duncan (.505, 10 doubles, eight triples) is awesome, No. 3 Emily Sanders has a state-leading 55 RBIs with 13 doubles and nine triples, and cleanup hitter Elizabeth Glass is hitting .517 with four homers.
Bache will need to tread lightly.
Prediction: The Eagles get the production they are used to getting, put some early pressure on West and pull through with a 3-1 win.
State softball semifinals
National Training Center, Clermont
Admission: $8 per session; parking is $5.
Class 5A: Niceville vs. Wellington, 5; Bartow vs. East Lake, 7
Class 2A: Sneads vs. Delray Beach American Heritage, noon; Winter Park Trinity Prep vs. Naples Community School, 2