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State champions! // For Lecanto girls, win is ducky

A simple children's game or a key to victory.

For the Lecanto High School softball team, Citrus County's first softball state champions, it was a little of both.

With little or nothing to lose _ some predicted the Panthers would finish as low as third in their district _ Lecanto took its unexpected playoff run in stride.

Pressure was almost never a factor, even in the state semifinal, when many of the players wondered aloud why they weren't nervous. No one expected them to get that far anyway, so everything from this point was a bonus.

Still, just hours before the team was to meet Lake Wales High School in the Class 4A state final Saturday, the nerves, and the weight of the situation, caught up with the Panthers.

For that, however, the Panthers had a simple cure.

Duck . . . Duck . . . Duck . . . GOOSE!!

Played in the outfield of one of the five fields at the Osceola County Softball Complex, the children's game vanquished the nerves, supplanting them with the usual giggles and smiles that Panthers' fans have grown accustomed to these past two weeks.

"We had a lot of nerves," said Danielle Zembower, who drove in the winning run in Lecanto's 2-1 win in the state final. "I was really nervous in batting practice, but Coach (Amy Lilley) got us together and we played Duck Duck Goose and it really helped. It made us all laugh and we forgot all about our nerves."

Oh did they.

As loose as they've ever been, the Panthers almost couldn't contain themselves during the pregame introductions, smiling slyly and giggling as they greeted their teammates and their opponents.

And as many teams have learned already, this was a bad sign for Lake Wales, because when the Panthers are playing loose, they are a deadly group indeed.

This is especially true of pitcher Michelle Rowe, who is at her stifling best when she is relaxed.

Rowe, who had struck out eight in an 8-3 win over fourth-ranked Rockledge in the semifinals a day earlier, saved her best for the Highlanders, striking out eight more batters and holding battle-tested Lake Wales to one run on a mere three hits. Her finest hour, however, came in the final inning. The Panthers clung to a 2-1 lead with a runner in scoring position and two outs.

"My hand was sweating," she said. "It kind of made the ball slip out of my hand. But I wasn't nervous. I was concerned. I was praying we would get her out."

Facing Rowe was Lake Wales' Rebecca Pavy, who had doubled in her last at bat, and on second was Highlanders third baseman Allison Whitaker. Pavy and Rowe battled for several minutes, the crowd hanging on every pitch, as Rowe ran the count to 3-and-2.

Then, with the kind of subtleness she has displayed all season and in the playoffs, Rowe slid a low change right above Pavy's knees. The umpire called strike three, and the Panthers celebrated the second team state title in Lecanto history. (The first was won in 1994 by the boys cross-country team.)

"I love this school, and I really wanted to give them something to remember me by," said senior Gwen Francis, a member of the Panthers' final four volleyball team who had just finished her last game at Lecanto. "Winning a state championship, that sticks in people's minds."

Fate may have played a part in Lecanto's championship run, as did heart, hustle and determination.Several times this team seemed destined for something special.

One came in the fourth inning of the North II Region final against Jacksonville's Bishop Kenny.

Lecanto was clinging to a 1-0 lead entering the fourth inning when Bishop Kenny put runners on second and third with no outs. Somehow, some way, Rowe and her teammates came out unscathed. The pitcher coaxed three straight fly balls to catcher Christina Huys and the Panthers held on for a 1-0 win and a trip to the final four.

Was it fate?

"I don't know," said Rowe, who struck out a total of 52 batters while allowing 14 hits and a mere six runs in five playoff games. "After that, I figured somebody must be watching out for me."