PALM HARBOR— As Plant's starting catcher, junior Ashley Schnitzler has the optimal vantage point to assess Panthers ace Kayla Suskauer.
Schnitzler hypothesized that Suskauer was at her best this season in the Panthers' 1-0 district final loss to Chamberlain.
The senior right-hander's region quarterfinal performance in a 1-0 victory at Palm Harbor University on Tuesday might trump any previous outing.
Suskauer held a potent Hurricanes lineup to three hits and struck out seven batters in a complete-game shutout. Additionally, Suskauer didn't allow a PHU base runner to reach third base until the seventh inning, when she worked her way out of a jam with runners on second and third and one out by striking out the final two batters.
"This one's probably tied with the Chamberlain game for her best game," Schnitzler said. "It seems as the season goes on, she gets stronger. She's an amazing pitcher. She really came through for us."
Suskauer's surge couldn't come at a better time for Plant (21-6), which advances to the region semifinals for the seventh time in eight seasons.
Clinging to a 1-0 lead that the Panthers built in the second inning, Suskauer (12-6), a Furman signee, watched as her first offering in the seventh inning to PHU's Laura Herndon was scorched over the head of rightfielder Courtney Croney for a double. After Kaitlyn Santo struck out on a 2-2 changeup, PHU's Courtney Pavlock chopped a slow blooper over Suskauer's head and in front of Kaitlyn Steckel at second base to reach safely.
With runners at second and third, Courtney O'Connell tried to squeeze Herndon home, but her bunt trickled foul. O'Connell then unleashed a deep drive to leftfield that could have been a walkoff home run for PHU (22-5) but drifted foul. A wild pitch later in the same at-bat had the Panthers holding their breath again until Schnitzler pounced on the loose ball before Herndon could dart home.
Through it all, Suskauer remained in control, finally getting O'Connell to strike out swinging on a 2-2 pitch. With one batter left, Suskauer fanned Nadia Rahman to complete her virtuoso performance.
"That's Kayla. That's why she is where she is. That's why she's going to college to play ball. She's such a competitor," Plant coach Melissa Sigmon said. "Time after time, she battles her way out of jams and does not give up."
Plant had runners in scoring position in five of seven innings. They capitalized in the second when Schnitzler, who went 2-for-3, lined a two-out base hit to leftfield to score Lizzy Mischo, who singled with one out.