Monday, March 19, 2018

Path to state appears clearer for Academy at the Lakes

LAND O'LAKES — Confidence is an intangible in sports that can't be overlooked. If a team has it, there is no win that is out of reach. One game can take a good team and turn it great.

The Academy at the Lakes softball team has been a good team for the past five seasons. But one team — Canterbury — has been better, knocking the Wildcats out of the playoffs in each of those five seasons.

This year, there's a different feeling surrounding AATL. The Wildcats already knew they had the players to make another run in Class 2A. But after shutting out defending state champion Canterbury 2-0, the Wildcats are eying a bigger prize — a state title.

While it is still early in the season, the Wildcats are starting to get noticed not only in Class 2A but in Tampa Bay. Coming off a school-record 20 wins in 2017, the Wildcats are 8-0, having outscored teams 65-1. They're ranked third in the Tampa Bay Times' area top 25. They don't intend on stopping now.

"I think we've definitely improved as the games have gone by and hopefully we'll continue to do that," said pitcher Alexis Kilfoyl, one of just two juniors on the team. "Our hitting has gotten better since we've seen more live pitching."

A big reason for the team's success has been clutch hitting, led by freshman Brooke Blankenship, as well as the dominant pitching of junior Kilfoyl.

Kilfoyl, who has committed to Alabama, is 6-0 and has not allowed a run. She has allowed just eight hits, while striking out 59 and walking just four.

"She's a fierce competitor," coach Diane Stephenson said. "She doesn't want anyone to hit her. She goes about pitching a game like a business venture — she's all in."

Blankenship, who has committed to Florida State, is batting .500. She has four doubles, one triple, two homers and seven RBIs to go with 13 runs scored.

"I haven't been around but a handful of kids who work harder than Brooke," Stephenson said. "She's extremely dedicated. She'll work for hours on her craft and is not afraid to work."

The two captains have some help with the young Wildcats squad maturing each game. AATL is batting .317 as a team with six players hitting .333 or better. Defensively, AATL has made just four errors in the field.

"A lot of us started on this team as sixth graders and I know I didn't feel like I belonged," said freshman Vanessa Alexander, who is batting .350 with two doubles, two RBIs and five runs scored. "Now that I'm in high school, I feel more confident and comfortable in my abilities."

Sophomore Jessica Mott thinks this team can be special.

"Last year we didn't get where we wanted to go but it was awesome where we went," said Mott, who is batting .400 and leading the team in RBIs (17) and home runs (three). "This year, I think a lot of us feel good about ourselves."

That Canterbury win was a big help. Kilfoyl pitched a gem, allowing just two hits while striking out 13. Blankenship backed her up by driving in both runs, including a home run.

"We all have put in a lot of work and we're seeing that it's paying off," Blankenship said. "Our confidence takes us to where we want to be."

When Kilfoyl is on the mound, that confidence soars.

"She's such an amazing player," said freshman Devyne Davis, who his batting .375 with four doubles and two RBIs. "We know we can count on here for absolutely anything and if we make mistakes, we know she has the power to fix anything that may have happened."

The Wildcats have been to the state tournament just once (getting knocked out by Canterbury in the 2013 semifinals). While Kilfoyl senses this could be a special year, she wants the Wildcats to take it one step at a time.

"We are getting older and we expect more out of ourselves," she said. "Anything less than a state title should not be disappointing. If we don't reach it, then we have to use it as motivation for the following year. It will give us something to work toward. …

"We believe in ourselves and our teammates."

Rick Brown can be reached on Twitter @rickbrown91.

Lady 'Canes Spring Classic

Host: Palm Harbor University

Where: Eddie C. Moore Complex, 3050 Drew St., Clearwater

March 23: Tarpon Springs vs. Tampa Catholic, 5 p.m.; Academy at the Lakes vs. Freedom, 5; Plant vs. Durant, 5; Newsome vs. Osceola, 5; Chamberlain vs. Mitchell, 7; Jefferson vs. Palm Harbor University, 7; East Lake vs. Wesley Chapel, 7; Strawberry Crest vs. Holy Names, 7

March 24: Games at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. (final)

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