DUNEDIN — The obvious highlights in Lakewood’s 3-0 victory over Dunedin on Monday were the seven shutout innings from starter Mariah Watts and an offense that produced several key hits, including a two-run homer by Watts in the first inning.
But the more subtle connective tissue in the victory was defense. Lakewood was efficient in turning batted balls into outs and helping Watts with clean play.
“It’s new team, and a new start,” said first-year coach Edie Shankle.
The constant the past two years has been Watts, a dynamic, hard-throwing ace who has racked up a dizzying amount of strikeouts. The trouble in the past came when there was contact and no guarantee that a ball would be cleanly fielded or a sure-fire throw would be made.
All that has changed this season thanks to an infusion of youth. Three of the Spartans’ four infield positions are occupied by freshmen. There also is a starting freshman behind the plate.
“They have all come in and contributed and played well together,” Shankle said.
It also is a big reason Lakewood has started 7-1 and has a legitimate shot at making the playoffs for the first time.
The Spartans had feasted on teams in south county the first part of the season. Monday’s game was the biggest test against the defending Class 5A, District 12 champion Falcons, who ended a long playoff drought with their postseason run last year.
Watts got things started with a two-run blast in the first inning that gave her team the lead.
“I was just feeling it at the plate,” Watts said. “I was in good form, found the right pitch and just went after it. It felt really good because it gave me a lead to work with.”
Watts gave up a hit in the bottom half of the first, but it did not do any damage. She gave up just two hits the rest of the way while striking out 10. Watts was able to get batters to swing by mixing in a variety of pitches, including a riseball and curveball. Her defense backed her up by playing nearly mistake-free softball.
“We have a lot of great players and our defense is playing well,” Watts said. “It gives me more confidence because I don’t feel like I have to be perfect with every pitch because I know there’s a defense behind me that can back me up.”
One of the freshman starters, Sarah Snell, scored two of Lakewood’s three runs, including one in the sixth that gave the Spartans more breathing room. Lakewood moves up to the top of the district standings.
“It’s a good start,” Shankle said. “And with so many young players, there’s a bright future, too.”