ODESSA — If Academy at the Lakes is to make a run at a repeat state softball championship, the Wildcats need leader Lexi Kilfoyl as close to full strength as possible.
She's getting closer.
Tuesday night she wasn’t quite there yet, but try telling that to fellow state title contender Land O’ Lakes, which was one-hit and lost 10-2 to AATL at the Wildcats’ home field in Starkey Ranch.
"I wasn't feeling all that strong tonight, but it's getting better," said Kilfoyl, who started feeling pain in her right shoulder March 11 and only recently returned to the circle. She struck out 14 Tuesday, giving the senior 51 punchouts in just 28 innings.
Kilfoyl, an Alabama commit, won the matchup with good friend and fellow USA junior national team candidate Callie Turner. AATL (12-7) scored seven runs off University of Tennessee-bound Turner in the second as she struggled with control, walking four. She gave up all 10 runs, striking out seven.
The off night for Turner started early, and also might have ended up costing the Wildcats an important part of their offense. In the first inning, Turner hit Jess Mott with a fastball on the right arm; Mott (.422 average) was clearly in pain, and after taking the official trot to first base, immediately left the game to have the arm iced.
“She’s our No. 2 hitter, plays second base for us. So hopefully we get good results (on the injury). She’s big for us,” said Wildcats coach Diane Stephenson. The Wildcats are already dealing with the midseason loss of sophomore Brooke Blankenship, a .500 hitter, to an arm injury.
Mott’s replacement, seventh-grader Mia Fields, scored on Vanessa Alexander’s bases-loaded groundout — after Turner hit another batter and gave up Devyne Davis’ infield chopper.
Davis had the big hit in the second, an inning that again began with Turner wildness. She walked Caitlin Blankenship and Jackie Laihinen to start things off, and after a strikeout proceeded to issue two more free passes, one to Fields making it 2-0. Hannah Church’s RBI groundout turned into an extra run on a throwing error, then Davis came through with a two-run double for 6-0.
"She's a phenomenal pitcher, so when she has an off pitch, you have to take advantage of it," said Davis, a sophomore who took over lead pitching duties when Kilfoyl was restricted to batting. "This is definitely a good game for us to win, and get under our belt to go into the postseason. I think we're as hungry as we were last year. We all want to win another one. That's super important for us to get back (to state)."
The Wildcats added another pair of runs in the big inning on a Blankenship single, followed by a throwing error on the play trying to get the runner at third base.
Land O' Lakes (19-5) had a similar poor inning Monday in an 11-8 loss to potential region foe Dunnellon, which scored 10 runs in the second (though not against Turner).
“Hope we can eliminate that one inning as we go forward,” said Gators coach Mitch Wilkins.
Turner only walked one more the rest of the way, but AATL tacked on runs thanks to Church’s double, coming around on Alexander’s sac fly in the fourth, and a solid Kacey Akins single scoring Davis (who had walked) in the sixth. Davis had a 3-for-3 night with the walk added in, and scored three times. Alexander drove in three despite having just one hit.
"This is kind of the rebound effect of not having Lexi (pitching) the past six weeks," Stephenson said. "For us to put up 10 runs... we've had to score and score and score, and now they know that's what they have to do. So I think that will just continue."
Actually Turner won the hitting battle against her friend, whom she struck out twice. Turner led off the fourth with a double, with pinch runner Trinity Blanc scoring on a wild pitch.
"I guess that made it a little bit better," said Turner, of her team avoiding a no-hitter. As for her pitching: "It was just my drop ball, which I usually don't throw anyway. I felt pretty good in that inning actually, but my mechanics just slowly got worse, but then I fixed it. Not worried. Just have to keep working."
Despite just one hit in her past four games, Kilfoyl is still hitting .611 for the year (she she collected multiple hits in all but two of the first 15 contests).
Neither of the Gators' runs came in on a hit: leadoff batter Shelby Westbrook walked, stole a base and scored on an error in the third..
For the Wildcats, who recently faced the top team in the country (Lakewood Ranch) and the defending Class 3A state champion (Admiral Farragut), the buildup to postseason play hit a crescendo Tuesday. While the Gators have one more regular-season game Thursday, the Wildcats wrapped the season to hit the playoffs on a perfect note.
“Yep, absolutely. Coach Wilkins and I always want to have this game at the end of the year, because it kind of catapults us both into the postseason,” Stephenson said. “Mitch is a really great friend, he’s been a great colleague since I got here three years ago, and we both work together to make this happen."