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Region softball: Never count out Wharton

The Wildcats will get another shot at East Ridge, which ended their season a year ago in regionals.

TAMPA — It took Wharton two trips through the batting order to figure out how to attack Lake Minneola junior pitcher Morgan Shannon. But the Wildcats, down 2-0, rose to the occasion for a 3-2 home victory in the Class 8A region quarterfinals Wednesday.

It’s the sixth straight win for Wharton (15-7), which now seeks to avenge a playoff loss last season when it hosts East Ridge on Tuesday. East Ridge defeated Wharton’s district rival, Freedom, 7-3.

For a good half hour, an all-Orlando area second round seemed likely. Shannon, who missed much of the season with an injury and threw 100 fewer innings than top starter Sarah Barefoot, got the call and leaned on her riseball to strike out eight in the first four frames.

“I’m upset to say that that’s normal, but this is a team that you can never count out,” said Wharton coach Brittany Bonea of the comeback."They never ever give up. It was just a matter of time getting used to the spin from (Shannon)."

Though she had modest strikeout numbers, 31 in 23 innings, Shannon fanned the first four she faced and did not give up a hit until Wharton No. 9 hitter Riley Collins lined a single in the third. After a bunt single by Hana Schwindler, Shannon got out of the jam, then Lake Minneola (13-10) took a 1-0 lead in the fourth.

Related: RELATED: Wharton regains district crown

Wharton starter Jill Long retired the first nine she faced but freshman Faith Campos singled to lead off the fourth, and after a sac bunt and a flyout Kayla Parra came through with an RBI triple. While Wharton struck out twice more in the bottom half, the visitors extended their lead to 2-0 on another triple, from No. 9 hitter Madison Carr.

“Obviously we got into a little bit of a hole, but we weren’t going to give up. This could’ve been our last game,” Long said.

The Wildcats were prepared to face Barefoot, only knowing that Shannon had the ability so spin the ball well ― but once they adjusted, the comeback was on.

After Shannon’s ninth strikeout started the bottom of the fifth, a Collins walk started a string of 12 straight at-bats without a K. Schwindler singled, and after a bunt by Mikayla Velasquez was dropped, the bases were loaded. Wharton, however, only scored once, on a sac fly by Savannah Klinger, her fourth RBI of the year.

Related: MORE SOFTBALL: East Lake thrives after early deficit

Long posted a 1-2-3 top of the sixth before Wharton’s biggest hit of the game, a leadoff triple from Tieley Vaughn. It set in motion a go-ahead frame: Sophia Cathy’s infield hit on an 0-2 pitch tied it, Long dropped down a sac bunt, and after Collins was hit by a pitch Schwindler came through with a two-out, two-strike RBI double.

“We moved them up in the box a little bit,” Bonea said. “When we’ve seen riseball pitchers in the past, we moved them back, so that they lay off of that rise ball. But with her spinning it so well in and out, as well as up and down, we moved them up, and they hit it before that break. And I think that was the difference.”

Schwindler went 3-for-4 while Cathy and Collins reached base all three times. Long did not walk a batter, striking out five to improve her record to 6-4. She’s only walked eight in 50 2/3 innings.

“I just try to keep it in the zone. I trust my defense,” said Long, who got several key catches from Schwindler at second base. “Even after letting up the two big hits, I didn’t change anything. I wasn’t going to change my approach, I was still going for the batters. I wasn’t pitching scared, because I trust my team.”

Lake Minneola’s lone prior region appearance was two years ago, when it lost to Strawberry Crest. The Hawks finished third in their district this season but upset Ocala Forest, which had run-ruled them in the prevous meeting, 7-6 in eight innings to take the district semifinal.

Wharton’s biggest postseason success also came two seasons back, a region final showing. Last year the Wildcats made the playoffs, but were outscored by a combined 27-0, including a 14-0 defeat to East Ridge, the team they’ll host next week.