To the teenagers on the Cypress Bay softball team, 75-year-old singer Bill Withers might as well be a dinosaur.
But the concept he sang about in his 1970s hit, “Lean on Me,” is appropriate to the Lightning players still to this day.
Cypress Bay has learned to rely on each other this season in making a return trip to this week’s Class 8A state championships in Vero Beach despite a right-knee injury that has slowed — but not stopped — senior pitcher Sarah Maloney.
“It’s a tough situation,” Cypress Bay senior shortstop Lily Pruneda said of the injury. “We can’t rely on Sarah as much as we have in the past. She is relying more on her defense. She gives us more trust now.”
Cypress Bay (21-6), which lost in the state final, 5-4, last season to Coral Reef, would get a rematch on Thursday if both South Florida teams win their semifinals on Wednesday.
Coral Reef plays Hagerty. Cypress Bay will play Valrico Bloomingdale.
Maloney, who made first-team All-State last season, was injured in July while playing travel ball on a muddy field. The poor conditions forced her to change her mechanics, which led to an MCL injury.
“The muscles are sprained and stretched but nothing’s torn,” Maloney said. “So I can keep playing.”
Since she won’t play softball in college, any surgery that would have endangered her final high school season was not an option for Maloney.
“I have a high pain tolerance,” Maloney said. “The pain is not awful for me — maybe a four on a scale of 1 to 10.”
Maloney wears a knee brace and has noticed that her velocity, which was once as fast as 67 or 68 mph, has decreased to about 62 or 63.
She said her strikeout totals have decreased as well. She had a career-high 18 strikeouts last season before the injury. But now she sees an eight-strikeout game as more the norm.
Still, she has battled to an impressive 15-3 record with a 1.20 ERA.
“My right leg is my push-off leg,” Maloney said of the importance of her “drag” leg in creating torque. “The more I push, the more power and velocity I get.”
Without all that velocity, Maloney has had to lean on her defense, and that was never more evident than last week in Cypress Bay’s 11-inning, 6-4 win over Park Vista in a regional final.
Park Vista seemed like a certain winner when it had the bases loaded with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning of a game that had been scheduled for seven.
But Maloney induced a grounder to third baseman Maddie Gott, who fired home for the game-saving force out. Maloney then got another ground out, this time to Pruneda, to end the threat.
Pruneda said more batters pull Maloney’s pitches now because of the reduced velocity, which makes defense at third base and shortstop much more important than last year.
“She’s fighting through it,” said Pruneda, who will play for Indian River State College next season. “She’s doing everything she can to strike batters out. But she knows she doesn’t have to do it alone. We are behind her.”
Or, as Bill Withers put it so eloquently: “Lean on me, when you’re not strong, and I’ll help you carry on.”