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Pirates on roll but coach still expects more

The scary part for those unfortunate enough to be chasing Crystal River in the Class 4A, District 6 softball race is that, according to the Pirates' coach, they are yet to hit full stride.

Which seems amazing for a team that has rolled off six straight wins, including three against its closest district competition. Nonetheless, Pirates skipper Laura Wingate is confident her team has better games ahead.

"We definitely have not peaked yet," Wingate said. "We haven't had what I would consider a perfect game yet. We still have some goals for the second half of the season. We'd like to eliminate some errors and we'd like to get more hits, especially with runners in scoring position."

If there were any problems for Crystal River during the first half of the season, hitting and the occasional error were the biggest. Whether they won or lost, errors were the biggest factor. They led to several runs in the Pirates' two losses (Hernando and Citrus), but were also key in some big wins (three runs against Lecanto).

Meanwhile, the bats have been sporadic at best, coming through in some cases but falling way short in others. There were efforts like those against Lecanto and Citrus where there was little or no hitting, and then there were games like last week's 4-3 win over Hernando in which the Pirates got a clutch hit by Amy Embree with the bases loaded in the final inning.

"We need to set more goals and find out just where we want to be going into districts," Wingate said. "Basically, we just need to keep playing good ball and we need to make sure we're not leaving runners on base."

Embree, whose clutch hit avenged a 12-2 loss to the Leopards in the season-opening Color Creations Softball Shootout, has had no problem in that department, driving in a team-high 11 runs while leading all regular starters with a .435 batting average.

Not far behind are starting pitcher and team leader Lanna Hough and first baseman Stephanie Hampton, who are batting .429 and .423 respectively with five RBI apiece. Both were missing in the first game against Hernando, and both played key roles in the revenge match.

Still, for all her optimism, Wingate is still leery when it comes to the district tournament.

"There are so many good teams in this area," she said. "All it takes is an error, a passed ball or a wild pitch and that could be it."

LECANTO: Just when Amy Lilley thought the worst had passed, and that some of the area's teams maybe had forgotten about last year's state title, along comes the first softball poll of the season.

1. Lecanto.

Oh well, it's probably fitting considering the Panthers never were ranked during last year's run to the state championship.

That said, the Panthers seem to be slowly overcoming some of the early-season woes. The errors are fewer and farther between and the hitting okay, the hitting still needs some work.

Not that this is anything new for the Panthers, who won the state title with a team batting average under .300. The problem is that this year's squad seems to be having more trouble with its bats than any in recent memory, and with a defense that has been shaky at times, that is a big problem.

"We've come a little ways," Lilley said, "but we've still got a long way to go. We need to be more aggressive, at the plate and on the base paths. We can't be satisfied with just two or three runs."

Only two batters are at or above .300 (Loran Vybrial and Sarah Dufresne) and of those only Vybrial has put up big numbers, leading the team with a .478 average and seven runs scored.

Yet, there is some good news for Panthers fans. Third baseman Danielle Zembower should return within the week, giving Lilley a valuable returning starter.

CITRUS: Laura Helt had done it before _ once in Little League and in practice a few times. But never in a high school game.

So when she bashed a pitch over the centerfield fence last Tuesday in Gainesville, it was a pleasant surprise.

"I can't explain the feeling," said Helt. "When I hit it, I knew it was gone. I just had that feeling. I was like, "Oh my God. I'm freaking out. I can't believe it.' "

Helt's shot cleared the fence 225 feet away. "It was legitimate," said coach Larry Bishop.

It also was the first out-of-the-park homer anyone on the team could remember, including the coaches.

Helt also hit the fence the previous Friday in Gainesville, which lends the impression a few more home runs may be on the way.

"Before every game, they (her teammates) always say, "Come on, Laura, hit one out for me today,' " Helt said. "That day I did."