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Phone it in? Not this East Lake softball team

An “old school” prop sends the message home for the Eagles, who have won 19 straight.

East Lake High softball coach Kristie Delk knew it would be difficult to top last season’s performance.

After all, the Eagles excelled at a championship level on and off the field. They won a district title for the second straight season and finished tops in the state for academic achievement among softball teams for having the highest collective grade-point average.

“Plus, I just absolutely loved the kids on our team last season,” Delk said. “It was a season of why coaches coach.”

The only thing that could exceed those superlatives would be winning the school’s first state title.

The Eagles have nearly a month to go before that could happen. But they do have a record befitting a potential champion.

East Lake not only has the best record (20-1) in the area, but has won 19 straight games. Included in that total are four victories at the always-tough Lady ’Canes Spring Classic that Palm Harbor University holds each season. The Eagles beat the hosts in the championship game.

“These kids are equally great and are finding ways to compete and win,” Delk said.

They also are talented. Tori Brennan, a junior, was the Tampa Bay Times’ Pinellas County Pitcher of the Year last season. Katie Bright, a sophomore who has already committed to defending national champion Florida State, transferred from Mitchell in the offseason. Senior Caroline Jacquay is a speedster who can make all kinds of acrobatic plays in the outfield.

Still, despite all those pluses, Delk understands success can be fleeting. There’s the next game to worry about, another opposing pitcher to dissect. And, of course, there is dreaded complacency to battle before it takes hold.

Delk used an old-school prop to make sure her team did not have a sense of security. At the beginning of the season, she bought a landline phone, complete with cords, and placed it in the dugout.

The message?

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“To remind us that we can’t ‘phone’ it in because any day anyone can beat you,” Delk said.

Since winning the Lady ’Canes tournament, the Eagles have played just two teams with a winning record. East Lake has not exactly played down to the competition, winning their last six games by four or more runs, including five that ended early because of the mercy rule (ahead by 10 or more runs).

While this impressive win streak is nice, Delk knows the competition will get considerably tougher once the postseason begins. Lakewood Ranch, which could end up being the No. 1-ranked team in the nation this week, stands in the way. Lakewood Ranch beat the Eagles in the second round of the playoffs each of the past two seasons.

“I sometimes forget we are coaching high school athletes and how hard it is to ask them to keep that intensity level up for all teams regardless of strength,” Delk said. “I worry that the fun, love of the game, gets lost if I’m constantly on them, but it’s a balance of you do that (mistake) against a playoff opponent, then we lose.

“Unfortunately I struggle to let up on them but our senior leaders understand why we have to keep playing error-free ball and relay that to the underclassmen who wonder why we aren’t ecstatic when we win by 10 runs, but it’s because we give up runs on errors or lazy plays.”

Before Delk could truly get her point across about maintaining intensity in every game, she had to explain how the phone in the dugout actually functioned.

Delk gave lessons on call waiting and how to untangle yourself from the cord when walking and talking.

“My grandparents have one attached to their wall,” senior McKenna Graham said. “Have I ever used one? Never.”

It took a while but East Lake now gets it.

“We just use (the phone) as a reminder that we never stop doing our jobs on the field,” Graham said. “Sometimes we have a little fun with it, too, by giving our teammates fake phone calls.”