DOVER — After five minutes, the softball lifer could take no more. It wasn’t chin music forcing Mindy Miltner to bail. More like chin-up music.
It’s okay. Keep your head high. You guys still had a great year.
They were the kind of well-meaning condolences Miltner didn’t want to hear after the most excruciating loss of her coaching career. The night before, her top-seeded Strawberry Crest team had been shocked, 1-0, by fifth-seeded Leto in the Class 6A, District 11 semifinals.
Each platitude stung like a fastball to the hip bone. So moments after beginning her school day, Miltner, a physical education teacher at Crest, ended it.
“I had to go home. I couldn’t listen to people talk about it,” Miltner said. “I didn’t want to hear it was okay. It wasn’t okay.”
A year later, fate has delivered a hanging curve, and it’s all the Chargers can do to stay back. In all likelihood, Strawberry Crest (20-2, 10-0) will get Leto (9-8, 4-6) in Tuesday’s district semifinals at Sickles.
The Falcons’ ace: Jaclyn Amato, the same right-hander who mesmerized the Chargers (four hits, four strikeouts) last spring. Never mind the fact Crest already has trounced Leto twice this season. In those games, the mercy rule merely ended the Falcons’ misery.
This time, the Chargers are hoping to end a season.
“As we learned from districts last year, (Amato) can come out and pitch her heart out at any game,” said shortstop Megan Reed, a University of Florida commitment.
“We can struggle up at bat, but this year we’re not letting that happen. We let it happen last year and we know what it feels like to have that bitter taste in our mouth all year. We’re coming back and we’re hungry and we want to win.”
Reed is among nine returning starters from that sickening paradox of a game: those seven innings that whipped by constituted the longest night of Crest’s season.
Keeping the Chargers off-balance with her velocity and ball movement, Amato worked briskly that night, allowing no extra-base hits. She got all the offense she’d need in the second on Mo Macaluso’s RBI double to the right-centerfield gap that was bobbled.
“The innings kept going by faster and faster and faster,” Miltner said.
“We would have opportunities to score, and then we didn’t score on those opportunities. I remember looking at the assistant coaches and just having that sickening feeling because the innings just kept going by so fast.”
By all accounts, the Chargers won’t be retired with such expedience this time around.
Perhaps the most telling sign of their formidability came at the recent Home of Champions Softball Tournament in Bartow, where they led the host school — a Florida softball juggernaut — 5-0 in the title game before allowing six runs in the seventh.
“I think we played outstanding — all but one inning,” Reed said.
Strawberry Crest entered Friday’s regular-season finale at Newsome hitting .444 as a team with 17 home runs.
Four players with at least 55 plate appearances — juniors Mia Fung, Cacey Simmons and Trystan Reibsome, and sophomore Aly Masessa — are hitting .510 or better. As a team, the Chargers have totaled 82 stolen bases.
Complementing the offensive wallop is arguably the county’s deepest pitching staff, led by junior Armwood transfer Sammy Tyler (12-1, 1.35 ERA, 72 2/3 innings).
“We have power, we have speed, we have lefties, slappers that also hit for power,” Miltner said. “Our team is very hard outs, one through nine.”
The only glaring hole exists on its resume. It remains at least another few days.
“It was very difficult walking up to Leto this year when we played at their place, and seeing the district championship banner,” Miltner said.
“Our players were upset, and they take that with them through a lot of games.”
Schedule: Monday — No. 6 Wharton vs. No. 3 Plant, 4; No. 5 Alonso vs. No. 4 Newsome, 7; Tuesday — No. 2 Bloomingdale vs. Wharton/Plant winner, 4; No. 1 Durant vs. Alonso/Newsome winner, 7; Thursday — final, 7
Where: East Bay
Schedule: Monday — No. 4 Hillsborough vs. No. 5 Brandon, 5; No. 3 East Bay vs. No. 6 Tampa Bay Tech, 7; Tuesday — No. 1 Plant City vs. Hillsborough/Brandon winner, 5; No. Riverview vs. East Bay/TBT winner, 7; Thursday — final, 7
Schedule: Tuesday — No. 4 Gaither vs. No. 5 Wiregrass Ranch, 7; Wednesday — No. 1 Chamberlain vs. Gaither/Wiregrass winner, 4:30; No. 2 Freedom vs. No. 3 Steinbrenner, 7; Thursday — final, 7
Schedule: Monday — No. 4 Leto vs. No. 5 Armwood, 5; No. 3 Sickles vs. No. 6 King, 7; Tuesday — No. 2 Jefferson vs. Sickles/King winner, 5; No. 1 Strawberry Crest vs. Leto/Armwood winner, 7; Thursday — final, 7
Schedule: Monday — No. 4 Spoto vs. No. 5 Middleton, 7:30; Tuesday — No. 2 Robinson vs. No. 3 Blake, 6; No. 1 Lennard vs. Spoto/Middleton winner, 8; Thursday — final, 7:30
Where: Holy Names
Schedule: Tuesday — No. 4 Sarasota Booker vs. No. 1 Tampa Catholic, 5; No. 3 Berkeley Prep vs. No. 2 Holy Names, 7; Thursday — final, 7
Where: Seffner Christian
Schedule: Monday — No. 4 Tampa Prep vs. No. 5 Brooks DeBartolo, 4:30; Tuesday — No. 1 Carrollwood Day vs. Tampa Prep/Brooks Debartolo winner, 2:30; No. 2 Seffner Christian vs. No. 3 Bishop McLaughlin, 5; Thursday — final, 5
Schedule: Tuesday — No. 2 Cambridge vs. No. 3 Lakeside Christian, 5; No. 1 Canterbury vs. No. 4 Bayshore Christian, 7; Thursday — final, 6