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BATTERS BEWARE! // Tapia leads the Lancers

Numbers are a major part of Melissa Tapia's life and high school softball career. But to her, they are secondary to being part of the friendly and fun environment of her team.

As a 16-year-old 11th-grader at Seminole Presbyterian, she is the No.

1 pitcher for the top-ranked Class A Lancers.

Even though still a junior, she is the oldest starter on a highly skilled team loaded with sophomores, freshmen and eighth-graders.

Although eight of the starters for the Lancers hit better than .400, she leads all hitters with a .559 batting average, three homers and 49 RBI. She has the second highest batting average of all Hillsborough County hitters of all schools and all classifications.

After pitching 137 innings this season, her record is 19-5. She has given up a total of 23 hits, thrown 196 strikeouts and has an earned run average of 0.87, which places her in the top five for all county pitchers.

Monday at 1 p.m., she will guide the Lancers into the state Class A semifinal game with Aucilla Christian seeking a berth in the championship finals Tuesday at 5 p.m. They are the first team in any sport at Seminole Presbyterian to make it to the state tournament.

Tapia has played softball since she was five. She has never worried about the numbers, but simply enjoyed her sport and still has fun playing.

"Making it to the final four has really been exciting for me and the rest of the team, because no other team from our school has been this far," she said. "I know I have to do the job and get the ball across the plate. I do feel the pressure, especially after the 2-1 close win over Miramar in the last game. However, a close game sharpens everyone up and pushes us to focus more, become even more determined and realize just how much we want it.

"I like to throw strikes, but I have a lot of confidence in our defense."

Coach Frank Mabry said despite the pressure, his team plays loose.

"All season they have just enjoyed playing, without getting up tight," Mabry said. "The coaches and parents get nervous, but they are just having a good time and Melissa is the leader. She laughs and talks with the girls around her between pitches. But as young as she is and the others even more so, they are not lacking experience in big games. On their travel teams they have placed as high as third nationally. They know what they are doing and enjoy it."

Tapia played slow-pitch softball until three years ago and has been a fast-pitch hurler less than two years.

However, she has come a long way in those two years developing control with several pitches, including a rise, drop, changeup, fastball and a new one she learned from a friend she calls a sling-shot.

Not because of her numbers alone, but for other reasons recognized by her coach, Tapia is the team leader for the Lancers.

"Even though she is still young, she is an action leader for the others (who are) so much younger," Mabry said. "She set a standard by her achievements on the field and with a strong work ethic. The other girls easily follow her example and just don't want to let her down. She picks up on that and consequently doesn't want to let them down. They understand each other's roles and have fun doing the job."

Off the field, Tapia continues to lead and encourage unity for her teammates.

"Because of being in school together so much and all the practice time, this team is much closer than all the travel teams I played with," Tapia said. "After games we go out for dinner together, shop and do weekend things and have fun on trips. When on the bus to games, we sing and do cheers just having fun."

Mabry has not coached a team this far in the state playoffs and he is very serious about everything that happens with his young charges.

"It is hard to realize they are so young, without thinking about next year, but we may not be here next year and this is such a great opportunity for the team and the school," he said. "Melissa is our best hitter, but her strongest asset for the team right now is her pitching. The other coaches and I have confidence in her and so do her teammates. But if she does run into a problem, we have confidence in the rest of the team. More important than that, Melissa has confidence in the rest of the team."

Seminole Presbyterian (19-5) vs. Aucilla Chr. (17-5)

WHAT: Class A state softball semifinal.

WHEN: Monday, 1 p.m.

WHERE: Bermuda St. Complex, Kissimmee.

NOTES: Seminole Presbyterian and Aucilla Christian are appearing in a state fastpitch final four for the first time after playing the sport for only three years. Seminole has been the state's top-ranked Class A team for most of the season. Seminole's attack is keyed by pitcher Melissa Tapia, who has not lost to a team below Class 3A. The Lancers have played an ambitious schedule, including an appearance in the prestigious Lady Ram Invitational. Aucilla has played well after making a pitching change. CF Sheri Hanners moved to the mound for the last 12 games and has an ERA of 3.78. Aucilla has stolen 169 stolen bases in 172 attempts.