Euphoria traveled a well-worn path Friday night, with bliss and exhilaration in tow.
After originating at the softball field at Durant High’s Ron Frost Athletic Complex, they wafted down Turkey Creek Road, hung a left on State Road 60 and exited at the Valrico Beef ‘O’ Brady’s. There, they lingered for what seemed like hours.
The Durant softball family, purveyor of these surreal states of mind, couldn’t let them go.
“Oh my, Beef’s was amazing,” said senior leadoff hitter Jordan “JoJo” LaFave, who elicited the latest convoy of jubilation with a walk-off eighth-inning home run in Friday’s 6-5 region semifinal win over Palm Harbor University.
“I didn’t even leave until after the store actually closed. They had to kick us out. I mean, they turned off all the televisions, like, hinting to us it was time to get out.”
This chaotic, curly-fried scenario — LaFave estimates 150 Durant players, coaches, family members and friends converged at Beef’s — has grown common the past two weeks as the Cougars (21-4) have staged one of the area’s most staggering postseason runs.
By now, the details are part of Durant lore. Down 11-0 to Alonso in the Class 8A, District 7 title game, the Cougars rallied for a 15-13 victory.
Five nights later, one pitch after watching East Lake drop a routine foul pop-up with two out, Paige Davis smashed a three-run walk-off eighth-inning homer in a 9-7 win.
Then Friday, junior Alyssa Colding hit the first homer of her prep career in the bottom of the seventh to tie PHU, before LaFave’s first-pitch homer over the rightfield fence in the eighth ended it.
Now, the Cougars hope to book space at Beef’s one more time this spring — at least. One more spread of barbecue wings, curly fries and Rice Krispie treats (a “Durant meal,” according to LaFave). One more night of testing the stamina of Christine Wilson, their favorite waitress.
One more victory party means Durant’s in the final four.
At this point, does anyone doubt the Cardiac Cougars?
“The emotion is really high right now,” said veteran assistant Mike Crabb, whose team hosts Orlando Timber Creek on Tuesday at the Frost Complex. “It’s as high as any team we’ve had since the year we went to the final four (in 2008).”
Durant’s power numbers have been as altitudinal as their spirits. The Cougars are hitting .312 over their past four games and have hit more home runs (eight) in that span than they did in their first 21.
Coach Matt Carter said the improbable surge essentially has coincided with a few tweaks — in terms of lineup and mechanics — installed about a month ago. But no amount of fine tuning can account for the timing of Durant’s biggest hits.
In their past four games, the Cougars have recorded three walk-off homers — by Kelli Tidwell, Paige Davis and LaFave, respectively. What’s more, they’ve rallied in their past three contests from an average maximum deficit of 6.7 runs.
Do they have a fourth comeback in them, if it comes to that?
You bet your barbecue wings, the Cougars insist.
“My blood pressure’s not the best in this world, but …theirs is obviously pretty good,” Carter said. “These kids are strong. They think on their feet and know what they are supposed to be doing.”
Tuesday’s region finals
All games at 7 p.m.
8A, Orlando Timber Creek (23-5) at Durant (21-4)
At stake: Winner plays Orlando Boone/Jacksonville Mandarin winner in Class 8A state semifinals May 13
Key stats: Cougars have eight home runs in past four games. …Senior Morgan Hatch has eight of Timber Creek’s 19 homers.
7A, Chamberlain (24-5) at Okeechobee (19-9)
At stake: Winner plays West Boca Raton Community/Cooper City winner in Class 7A state semifinals May 11
Key stats: The Chiefs’ road trip will cover 276 round-trip miles. … Okeechobee senior ace Sam Harrell, a Brevard College signee, tossed a three-hitter in a semifinal shutout of Braden River.
4A, Fort Myers Bishop Verot (23-6) at Academy of the Holy Names (17-6)
At stake: Winner plays Fort Lauderdale University/Miami Gulliver Prep winner in Class 4A state semifinals May 13
Key stats: The Jaguars are batting .365 as a team. …The Vikings have allowed two total runs in their past four games; sophomore Annette Castaldo has a 0.88 season ERA.