Monday, November 20, 2017
Sports

State softball: Durant rolls into Class 8A final with 7-2 victory

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CLERMONT — On their biggest stage of the year Sunday night, the Durant Cougars diverted from the surreal postseason script that has strummed heartstrings and spawned heart palpitations.

Instead of winning in walkoff fashion, these Cardiac Cougars (23-4) won in walk-all-over style.

"We didn't want to give our fans any more heart attacks," senior leadoff hitter JoJo LaFave said.

On a mild Mother's Day evening at the National Training Center, Durant pounced early on two Jacksonville Mandarin pitchers and got an error-free effort from its defense in a 7-2 triumph in the Class 8A semifinals. The Cougars return to the field tonight to face Miami Palmetto in the state final.

"It was unusual for us," said coach Matt Carter, whose team had won three of its previous five games on walkoff home runs and rallied from gaping deficits in three of its last four. "But we had to do it."

In lieu of a riveting end Sunday, the Cougars opted for the anticlimactic. Durant built a fourth-inning 6-0 lead before the Mustangs got their first baserunner. Mandarin starter Kayla Donker, meantime, was pulled three batters into the game after a series of illegal pitches.

She re-entered in the fourth inning, to little avail. Coming off an 11-day layoff, the Cougars collected 11 hits, with eight of their nine batters collecting at least one. Their Nos. 7, 8 and 9 hitters — Shannon Bell, Brooke Freeman and Payton Lewis — combined to go 5-for-11 with three runs.

Starting pitcher Paige Davis and designated hitter Kelli Tidwell each had two RBIs.

"All we've done is work on our offense since we've been back (to a normal practice schedule)," Carter said. "Thursday and Friday was strictly offense, a few reps in the cage today."

Defensively, junior ace Davis retired the first 10 hitters she faced before scattering nine hits over the final 3 2/3 innings. But any Mustangs hit that didn't find a gap found a glove.

Durant was essentially flawless in the field, committing no errors. Davis helped her own cause, snagging a Sierra Sikes liner and turning around to double off Kendall Reid at second base in the fifth inning.

Among the other stars: senior shortstop Olivia Cuellar, whose mother, Antionette "AC" Cuellar, died May 4 of cancer.

"This is a huge game," LaFave said. "We wanted to do it for (AC), for our fans, for our school. We're representing everybody, everybody drove out here. But just to look up in the sky and know she had the best view out of everybody, it really meant the world to us."

Cuellar, who pointed skyward during her pregame introduction, said she was bereft of nerves.

"I was kind of at ease," said Cuellar, who cleanly fielded consecutive grounders for the first two outs of the seventh. "I felt like there was no pressure at all and whatever the plan was would happen."

Why was she at ease?

"My angel," she said.

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