CLEARWATER — The game was tight, the situation tense when Countryside's Stella Preston was called upon to pitch.
The Cougars had a one-run lead against East Lake and trying to get out of a jam with runners at second and third with one out in the fourth inning.
Preston, a sophomore, came through, getting one batter to ground out and striking out the other to end the threat. She continued to keep the Eagles off balance, allowing one hit and striking out four. Countryside's offense did the rest, adding some insurance runs in the fifth inning of a 4-1 victory that kept the Cougars (14-4) at the top of Class 7A, District 9.
"I was surprised I was going into the game at the time," Preston said. "I had to remember to relax, walk around and breathe."
Alyssa Queen, the Tampa Bay Times' all-County pitcher of the year last season, started for Countryside and gave up three hits and a run through 31/3 innings. Queen has been battling an ankle and shoulder injury most of the season and Bayly has tried to give her relief.
Bayly can do that thanks to pitching depth that includes Preston and Samantha Ramasanto. Preston has started to come on in the past month and is 3-0 with a 0.36 ERA.
"For me, it's just more of a gut feeling whenever I decide to make a pitching change," Bayly said. "Stella has gained more confidence and has a lot of movement with her pitches."
East Lake (10-6) was hurt by the absence of outfielder Aliyah Andrews, who was out with a sprained hamstring. Andrews, a sophomore who has committed to LSU, leads the county with 20 stolen bases.
"(Aliyah) is a game-changer," Eagles coach Kristie Delk said. "She has so much speed on offense and defense. But we didn't want to take any chances and rush her back. We want to have her ready for the district tournament."
East Lake took a 1-0 lead in the second. Countryside answered with two runs in the bottom half, then added two in the fifth inning. The Cougars had four hits, including RBI doubles by Keeley Mayers and Brooke Sharpe.
The Eagles also had four hits and drew two walks but left five runners stranded.
"We have to do a better job of executing with runners in scoring position," Delk said. "But give credit to Countryside. Their pitcher did a good job of mixing her pitches."