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TAMPA — The pregame fungo session over which Leto coach Kelly Hacker presides elicits a strong first impression, one as clear as the clay in her sneakers or the bob in her brown pigtails.
This is a job Hacker was born to do.
Then, you discover it was one she was begged to do.
“I had six days to prepare for the first game,” Hacker recalls, “and that was it.”
The most improbable local softball tale of 2012 begins with disarray and culminates with disbelief. Hacker, a softball junkie in a previous life, was perfectly fine spending her spring afternoons coaching the Leto flag football program she originated seven years ago.
Then the softball team lost one coach last fall, and another in the waning stages of the preseason. When approached, Hacker agreed to help out in a pinch.
That pinch has segued into the playoffs.
“It feels amazing,” right-handed ace Jaclyn Amato said.
A No. 5 seed in last week’s Class 6A, District 11 tournament, Leto (15-7) shut out top-seeded Strawberry Crest in the semifinals before defeating No. 3 Jefferson in the title game for its first district crown.
“I can tell you that never did I imagine we would be where we are right now,” Hacker said.
Detractors will say the key to the Falcons’ astonishing transformation lies smack inside the circle. Amato, a junior who transferred from Steinbrenner at the end of the 2010-11 school year, allowed one earned run in 21 district tournament innings.
In 87 innings, she has posted a 1.13 ERA with 139 strikeouts. When sidelined for roughly a month as the Florida High School Athletic Association looked into her transfer (she ultimately was cleared), the Falcons lost to Jefferson, Strawberry Crest and Steinbrenner by a combined score of 36-2.
But Hacker argues the success transcends one player. Leto is hitting .308 as a team and is averaging barely more than one error a game.
“Is it nice to have a pitcher who throws as hard and accurate as Jaclyn does? Absolutely,” said Hacker, who played her prep softball at King and spent several summers with the Tampa Heatwave travel team. “But you have teams out there that have a pitcher, but they don’t have fielding.”
Then there’s Hacker, whose presence galvanized a team in danger of collapsing when Todd Nichols — the program’s second coach of the school year — stepped down over what many say were philosophical differences with the players.
“Some girls came to me with concerns with the team,” Hacker recalled. “And it was brought to my attention that they didn’t have a coach anymore.”
Making the initial contact was senior third baseman Celeste Marrero, who credits Hacker with helping her get back on course to graduate after some junior year struggles.
“She was always there for me and she played softball when she was younger, so I figured she would know a little about softball and stuff like that,” Marrero said.
Initially, the plan was for Hacker — a married mom of three — to run the team until flag football practice began in mid February. It took exactly one practice for softball to re-seize her heart.
“I came out the first day, it was a Friday, and I went home to my husband and was like, ‘Oh my god,’ ” Hacker recalled. “He goes, ‘You’re going to change sports, aren’t you?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I think I am.’
“I forgot how much I loved it until I stepped on the field.”
That passion hasn’t clouded her perspective. Hacker isn’t committing to softball beyond this season, which continues with tonight’s Class 6A region quarterfinal at home against Osceola.
The pain of walking away from her flag football team remains palpable, and she can’t do both. Before making any decision, she’d like to clear her mind.
And this season has left it completely boggled.
“It’s awesome,” said sophomore Becca Harkins, who hit her first varsity home run against Jefferson. “We’ve been in a tough spot, and now it’s real.”
2A: Cambridge at Southwest Florida Chr., 4
3A: Seffner Christian at Lakeland McKeel, 4
4A: Berkeley Prep at DeSoto County, 7
4A: Mulberry at Holy Names, 7
6A: Osceola at Leto, 7
6A: Jefferson at Lakewood Ranch, 7
8A: Alonso at PHU, 4
8A: East Lake at Durant, 7
5A: Boca Ciega at Robinson, 7
5A: Lennard at Dunedin, 7
7A: Seminole at Chamberlain, 7
7A: Steinbrenner at Countryside, 4
7A: George Jenkins at Riverview, 7
7A: Plant City at Bartow, 7