NEW PORT RICHEY — Working through uncomfortable situations is key for any effective pitcher, but circumstances were even harder for Land O’ Lakes hurler Mia Fields on Tuesday night.
Never mind that, as a freshman, she got the call with a berth in the Class 5A region finals on the line. She also had to excel against a River Ridge squad that not only dealt the Gators a walk-off loss in the district final, but has several of her good friends on its roster.
Fields is so close with Royal Knight standout sisters Brooke and Caitlin Blankenship — playing travel ball together and hanging out on weekends — that she had trouble looking them in the eye and pitching to them.
“I was trying to focus on their knees,” Fields said sheepishly.
But through true grit and backed by an impressive defense, Fields and Land O’ Lakes made early River Ridge miscues hurt in a 3-1 victory.
Hunting to grab an early lead, the Gators (22-7) took advantage of a third-inning leadoff error followed by a single from sophomore No. 9 hitter Nicol Werking (two hits). Pinch runner Lindsey Tasker smartly moved to third on an infield pop-up, then hustled home on fellow freshman Kiersten Stevens’ sacrifice fly to open the scoring. The inning was extended on another fielding error, allowing junior cleanup batter Emma Nixon’s topspin single to leftfield to plate Werking.
“You certainly can’t give a good team five or six outs in an inning,” mused River Ridge coach Kurt Goluba. “It was going to come back and bite us.”
“It was definitely important to get a lead,” Land O’ Lakes coach Mitch Wilkins said. “My girls came in here loosey-goosey, just wanted to have a fun time and play a good game.”
The Gators then posted an important insurance run in the top of the fourth when Fields slashed an opposite-field triple to right — ”We worked on it all week for the tourney opener (against Osceola), said Wilkins — and scored on Spencer’s line single to center.
The tough start didn’t take the fight out of the Royal Knights (22-6). In six of the game’s seven innings, River Ridge got its leadoff batter on base. In the fourth inning, sophomore Caitlin Blankenship walked and junior Jordan Sheets followed with a single.
Even with those opportunities, Fields (complete-game five-hitter) and the Gators defense stepped up. Three strikeouts and easy catches by centerfielder Werking ended the first three threats. Line drives to stellar shortstop junior Nehanda Lewis (double, walk, hit by pitch) in the sixth and sophomore second baseman Jadyn Spencer in the seventh were quickly turned into rally-killing double plays.
Only in the fourth could River Ridge break through when Victoria Nearing’s sacrifice fly scored Caitlin Blankenship.
“We have an awesome defense,” Fields said with a smile. “I definitely trust my defense 100 percent. It’s not a one-person game and they’re always there to back me up.”
River Ridge also brought the leather as relief pitcher Sheets and senior shortstop Brooke Blankenship turned fine catches into twin killings in the final two frames but ended up falling just short.
“It was just one of those nights, you’ve got to tip your cap to them,” said Goluba. “They get to continue and we’ve got to go home.”
“Each game we’ve played against (the Royal Knights) has gotten tighter and tighter,” Wilkins added. “They’re a great team and we knew we could compete with them. We feel very fortunate to be moving on.”
Region softball semifinals
7A: Lakewood Ranch 15, Newsome 4
6A: Mitchell 11, Sunlake 1
6A: Durant 2, Bartow, 1
5A: Auburndale 7, Pasco 5
5A: Land O’Lakes 3, River Ridge 1
4A: Hernando 14, Wesley Chapel 2
4A: Lake Region 4, Robinson 1
3A: Lakeland McKeel 3, Cypress Creek 0
3A: Holy Names 1, Calvary Christian 0
2A: Canterbury 15, Academy at the Lakes 0
2A: Seffner Christian 7, Melbourne Holy Trinity 2
Region softball finals
All games at 7 p.m. Friday unless noted
6A: Mitchell at Venice
6A: Viera at Durant
5A: Land O’Lakes at Palmetto
4A: Hernando at Lake Region
3A: Lakeland McKeel at Holy Names
2A: Canterbury at Fort Myers Evangelical Christian, 5
2A: Seffner Christian at Mount Dora Christian