Palmetto’s softball team returned to a familiar setting last season.
On Friday night, the more experienced Panthers secured a return visit to Vero Beach and the state finals following a 6-0 victory over Coral Gables, and feel they are ready to claim a prize they have three times in their history — a state championship.
Palmetto (25-2) advanced to the state final four for the 11th time in school history and will face Winter Garden West Orange at 6:35 p.m. next Friday at Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach in a Class 9A state semifinal.
“A big core of this team got that taste of playing at state [last year] and I think they’ll be ready,” Palmetto coach Emilio Exposito said. “Now we just have to bring [a championship] back.”
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Brittney Barczak and Daijaa Williams combined on a four-hit shutout to end Coral Gables’ season after the Cavaliers (19-8) reached the regional finals for the second time ever (2012).
Hannah Burge and Janelle Dominguez each went 2 for 4 to lead the potent Palmetto lineup, which has scored 26 runs in three regional playoff games. Jayla Digennaro also had a key hit as Palmetto scored three runs in the fifth inning to break the game open.
“Both our pitchers have gotten stronger and gained more stamina in the circle all season,” Exposito said. “We’ve been swinging it really well in practice and it shows.”
▪ Region 4-8A final - St. Thomas Aquinas 4, Cooper City 3 (10 inn.): The visiting Raiders had trouble getting the ball out of the infield against Cooper City ace Kara Lokeinsky for nine innings.
Then came the 10th.
Aquinas (22-9) scored three runs off deep shots to the outfield in the top of the 10th to advance to the state final four in Vero Beach by beating the Cowboys (20-8) in a regional final for a second straight year.
The Raiders, who beat Cooper City 5-0 in this round last season, had one out in the 10th when Lauren Stansell reached on a walk. Stansell raced home with the go-ahead run on a deep shot off the left field fence from Kristen Sacca. Then Sacca would jog home from second after Lindsay Gehring took a chunk out of a palm tree beyond the centerfield fence.
“An hour and a half ago, I told my assistant this felt like your ordinary St. Thomas-Cooper City game. And then it got pretty exciting,” coach Bryan Baucom said. “I couldn’t be more proud of this team. This is a very young team which has grown up a lot in the past few weeks.”
Aquinas starter Gabriella Nori and Lokeinsky went pitch for pitch in what was a classic duel between rival programs.
The Raiders took a 1-0 lead in the first thanks in great part to three infield errors by the Cowboys with Aquinas not getting its first base hit off Lokeinsky (12 strikeouts) until the fifth.
Cooper City, meanwhile, tied the score in the fourth on a grounder from Jasmin Herrera.
After that, both teams put runners on third in a bid to break the tie and head to Vero, but it was Aquinas which did so in the 10th.
Cooper City, of course, made things extremely exciting with RBI singles from Kassandra Espinosa and Michelle Adelina in the 10th.
Nori, who ended with 12 strikeouts, got a pop up to shortstop Meagan Patterson for the final out.
“Cooper City played great and never gave up,” Baucom said. “This is the best rivalry in Broward softball. By far.”
▪ Region 4-6A final: American Heritage 3, Rockledge 0: Normally softball teams that win a regional final and clinch a trip to the state final four break out in wild celebration following their win. That is unless you are American Heritage.
In their case, it was another episode of “been there, done that” as Heritage, on the strength of a no-hit shutout from sophomore pitcher Julia Grobman, dispatched Rockledge at Heritage Field and celebrated with nothing more than a few high fives.
And with it, the defending Class 6A state champions clinched their sixth consecutive trip to the state final four and eighth in the last 10 years.
The Patriots (24-3), who probably treat a trip to Dodgertown in Vero Beach like a rite of passage by now, will head north next week to take on either Pensacola-West Florida or Ponte Vedra in a state semifinal at 11:05 a.m. on May 19 in a quest for the program’s eighth state title. Rockledge finished its season 25-5.
“A great job by all the girls out there tonight, especially Julia, she was outstanding out there on the mound,” said Heritage head coach Marty Cooper. “We preach from the first day of practice, the goal around here is not districts or even regionals, it’s winning a state title and hopefully we’re going to go up there next week and get another one.”
Just a sophomore, Grobman dominated on the mound. After struggling a little bit with the strike zone in the first inning, walking two batters, settled in and proceeded to retire 20 of the final 21 Rockledge batters (a third inning walk being the only other blemish) while recording seven strikeouts.
“Once I got settled in after that first inning everything was working for me out there tonight and I need to thank my defense out there for its support as well,” said Grobman who especially thanked left fielder Jordan Griffith who made a diving catch of a ball about to drop in in the last inning to preserve the no-hitter. “This feels great and now we want to go back up there and get another championship.
Heritage got the only runs Grobman would need in the last of the fourth when Griffith, following a one-out double, came all the way around to score when Marissa Soterokis dropped down a bunt just past the pitcher which slowly dribbled its way out toward second base. Soterokis eventually scored on a Marley Felder base hit.
▪ Region 4-7A final – Stuart-South Fork 10, Doral Academy 0 (5 inn.): The fly ball looked innocent off the bat. It looked like it could end the inning. But then it landed without an outfielder in sight, rolled to the wall and cleared the loaded bases.
That third-inning double by South Fork catcher Gaby Rumie was too much for Doral Academy to overcome on Friday night, as the Firebirds got run-ruled in five innings against the visiting Bulldogs 10-0 in front of an overflowing crowd in the region 4-7A softball final. The Bulldogs will head to Vero Beach for the state Final Four after eliminating the Firebirds for the second time in the past three seasons.
Rumie, who played for Doral before transferring to South Fork ahead of this school year, was the hero for the Bulldogs, who turned a two-out third-inning rally into the difference in the game.
“It felt great,” Rumie, a sophomore, said. “I miss living here, but I’m with my new team and stuff, and I’m just happy I got them to states.”
Doral Academy coach Walter Acevedo added that he never doubted his former player would be the one to put his team away.
“We know what she’s capable of doing,” he said, “and that was the game changer. Everything changed from there.”
After getting two quick groundouts to start that third inning, Doral starter Kassandra Machado got into trouble. Morgan Roberts singled to center, and Sam Williams doubled to drive her in.
Then Maddie Kellaher walked, Barbara Cook picked up a bloop single to left and Rumie delivered all of them.
From there, the Bulldogs added to their lead while Doral was shut down on offense. The Firebirds managed one hit in the shutout loss and missed several opportunities early in the game, including back-to-back innings where they stranded two runners. Acevedo said the key -- in addition to several of his players being out with injuries -- was that South Fork realized his team was swinging early at rise balls. That led to shallow pop-ups and strikeouts.
“We didn’t execute the plays we were supposed to do,” he said. “We didn’t have discipline at the plate. But it comes with the youth of the team. This is a very young team.”
While that youth doomed his team on Friday, Acevedo added that it’s encouraging for the future. The starting pitcher, Machado, for example, is in 8th grade.
“She carried us the whole season,” Acevedo said.
After the game, as South Fork’s players hugged and stomped and took pictures on the field, Acevedo took his team far into left field near the wall and formed a circle. He told his players how proud he was of what they’d done this season, even though they’d lost one game shy of the state tournament.
He did this for as long as it took South Fork to completely empty its dugout. In Doral’s, meanwhile, discarded Gatorade cups, a bag of sunflower seeds, gloves, hats and a pair of catcher’s masks lied lifeless on the bench and ground.
But as the team returned from the outfield, the dugout was once again full of life. Of hugs, half-smiles and high-fives.
“At the end of the day, we didn’t execute,” Machado said. “But I’m really proud of them.”