DURANT — Two years after Durant made an improbable, drama-filled run to the state championship, the Cardiac Cougars made a roaring return to start the Class 7A playoffs.
Senior outfielder Shannon Bell knocked a 1-0 pitch just over the right-centerfield wall for a three-run home run that gave Durant a 9-8 comeback, walkoff win over Steinbrenner in Thursday's region quarterfinal.
"Our big thing is stay positive all the time," Bell said. "Never give up."
The Cougars (19-8) didn't, even after losing a lead early.
Durant jumped ahead 4-2 in the bottom of the fourth thanks to a two-run single by Kelli Tidwell. But Steinbrenner (13-10) didn't go away easily.
The Warriors came back by loading the bases immediately and scoring five runs in the fifth. A Durant balk brought in the first, and Emily Scios' sacrifice fly and Nichole McClendon's three-run home run put the Cougars in a 7-4 hole. Scios' RBI single the next inning extended the deficit to four.
"I had it in the back of my mind that we got this," Bell said.
Durant chipped away at the lead over the next two innings. A Steinbrenner error brought home Bell and Tidwell in the bottom of the sixth — and gave the Cougars one final chance.
Morgan Slater fouled off five consecutive pitches before walking to end a 10-pitch at-bat in the bottom of the seventh. After Brooke Freeman reached on a fielder's choice and Payton Lewis walked, Bell knew she could be patient at the plate.
"I was waiting for my pitch," said Bell, who leads the team with 44 RBIs.
Bell took the first ball, then found what she was looking for, blasting a pitch on the outside corner out of the park for her fifth home run of the year.
By the time she rounded third base, Bell saw her entire team waiting at home to celebrate the fourth walkoff hit of her career.
7A: Plant City junior shuts down Gaither
TAMPA — Plant City junior pitcher Noelle Dietrich used everything in her repertoire to keep Gaither off balance.
Exactly what pitches she threw, Dietrich didn't say.
"I don't want to give that away," she said, laughing.
After allowing a run in the second, Dietrich settled in, giving up only two hits total to lead Plant City to a 3-1 victory and into the region semifinals for the fourth time in five seasons.
"Noelle was on fire," coach Maggie Feix said. "She had her speed. She was hitting her spots."
Gaither (16-6) took the lead when Sammi Grat singled to lead off, reached third with two outs and scored on Payton Hiday's infield single.
Plant City (20-6) responded immediately to take the lead. With two outs, Avery Brown and Emily Register started the rally with singles. Brown scored after Kacie Booth's grounder zipped under the glove of the Gaither third baseman to tie the score. Register came home when a throw from catcher to second base on a pickoff was unsuccessful.
From there, Dietrich retired the side in order in the third, fifth, sixth and seventh. Her only hiccup came in the fourth, when she gave up a two-out walk to Tori Wilkins, who reached third on an errant pickoff. Dietrich induced a groundout to end the threat.
"My pitches were on," Dietrich said. "Me and my coach were working well. My defense was great backing me up."
Plant City scored an insurance run in the seventh when Booth's base hit to centerfield with two outs plated Rebecca Sorenson.
Dietrich worked a 1-2-3 seventh to cap her night.
Said Feix: "Basically, we kept them off the bases."
5A: Locals ousted
A week after securing its first playoff berth, Lakewood came through with its first postseason win, beating Robinson 13-3.
Lakewood jumped out to a 4-0 lead after two innings. In the sixth, the Spartans broke the game open with eight runs.
Also in 5A, Middleton fell behind early and never recovered, losing 15-0 at Bradenton Bayshore in four innings. The Tigers (5-16) were playing in the program's first postseason game.
3A: First for Patriots
ODESSA — Carrollwood Day defended its home-away-from-home turf (Fest Field), dispatching Fort Meade 5-2 for its first-ever playoff victory.
The Patriots (15-7) are destined to have at least one more go at Fest Field as they host Lakeland Christian on Tuesday.
"Tuesday is the biggest game of the season for us," Patriots coach Chuck Fest said.
It almost didn't happen for the Patriots. Leading just 2-0 off two sacrifices in the top of the fourth, the Miners' Samantha Rodriguez slapped a hopper to short. Keely Staat, running from second base impeded Emma Frost from making the play and the ball made the outfield. Two throwing errors later, four runs — including Rodriguez — had scored and it looked as if the Miners would take the lead. But the umpires huddled and called Staat out on the interference, and the Patriots escaped the inning tied at 2.
Then the bats came alive.
Frost, hitless to that point, tripled to right-center for her 28th extra-base hit of the season, scoring Elizabeth Edgerton. Then Emalee Jansen drove in Frost on a sacrifice. An insurance run from Edgerton in the bottom of the sixth was all the Patriots needed after starting pitcher Jansen completed the seven innings giving up seven hits and two earned runs, while making six putouts.
At Lakeland, sophomore righty Kristen Beacham blasted a pair of three-run home runs, was 4-for-4 at the plate and went six innings to lead Lakeland Christian 10-0 over Seffner Christian.
Correspondents Bryan Burns and Andy Warrener contributed to this report, which uses information from the Ledger.