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Gaither waltzes into title race // For coach, winning is in the details

Jerlyn Skora sat in the bleachers last week, waiting.

After 25 years of playing, 13 years of coaching and a heart-wrenching 1995-96 season like no other, she had to wait one more week for today, when her Gaither High School softball team plays in the Class 6A state championships.

"I've never made it this far _ not as a player in Little League or high school, or as an assistant or head coach," said Skora, who at 32 belies the stereotypical moniker of veteran. "But I've played and coached in many, many big games and I'm not nervous, I'm just very excited."

And prepared.

Her players talk about "taking a million hours of batting practice," and fielding for "hours and hours, over and over again."

Her assistant coach, Jessica Perez, said Skora is "unbelievably meticulous," down to her players' tucked-in shirts, the computer-printed statistics, and her lengthy list of superstitions.

"She has to get the game balls at the same time before every game, and I have to stand in the same place while she gets them," Perez said. "One of the girls also has a lucky purse she hangs in the same place in the dugout. And, if you can believe it, Jerlyn and the parents park in the same spaces every game.

"There are a bunch of other little details, and Jerlyn takes note of all of them."

This is not to say Skora is quirky. In fact, she initially strikes a person as anything of the sort.

"I thought she was mean when I first met her," said shortstop Suzanne Flege, who leads the team with a .403 average. "I think she was just trying to scare everybody _ to see who was tough. But it didn't take long for us to get past that and enjoy everything."

Skora took over Gaither's softball team one week before the 1994 season when the previous coach suddenly stepped down. It was a lot to take on, considering she taught math and already coached basketball.

And with a few players, she wasn't a popular choice.

"I was totally bummed out when I heard she was taking over," pitcher Gina Krueger said. "I knew she was a basketball coach and she had played slow-pitch softball, but no fast-pitch. I guess I had a bad attitude about it, and I let it be known.

"But now, three years later, she's my most favorite coach that I've ever had. She is upbeat and gets just as excited as the players, and she is always there for us."

This year, Skora had to be there more than ever.

On Nov. 11, one of her star pitchers, Janna Snyder, died in a car accident after she left a party where she and other Gaither students had been drinking.

A day later, Skora gathered her team to talk about "anything and everything," and at that moment, everyone decided to dedicate the season to Snyder.

"This team has been on a mission ever since," Skora said. "The kids and parents have been absolutely fantastic, and it's turned out to be a special year.

"The memory of Janna is still very much there, but in a special way."

Indeed, when Gaither won the regional final 8-1 on May 7 against Gonzalez Tate in the Panhandle, the team looked up and was shocked to see Janna's father, Dana. He had flown up after work to watch the game.

Tears flowed as Skora handed Dana the game ball.

Gaither has been ranked No. 1 most of the season, and has a record of 28-1.

The Cowboys will play today's semifinal game at 5 p.m. against Lantana Santaluces at Bermuda Avenue Complex in Kissimmee. With a victory, Gaither goes for the championship at 8 p.m. on Saturday.