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Prep Sports Report

Bob Putnam, Rodney Page, Kelly Parsons

District softball: Sickles 8, Steinbrenner 2

Sickles’ record did not suggest it was primed for a playoff run. The Gryphons were 13-12 entering the Class 8A, District 5 tournament and had lost seven of their final 10 games in the regular season.

But the schedule yielded few easy nights. Sickles played every formidable opponent in the area it could find.

The result may have produced some losses but also provided quality competition, something the Gryphons strived for to get ready for the games that really mattered.

It paid off. Sickles played its best softball this week, routing Plant 8-0 in the semifinals and beating top seed Steinbrenner 8-2 in the championship game. The Gryphons are in the playoffs for the first since 2013 and won their first district title since 2002.

Sickles also snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Warriors that dated to 2014.

Kamryn Jackson had a big tournament for the Gryphons, going a combined 6-for-8 with three triples, a double and four RBIs in the two games.

In the title game, Maddie Tomas got the win and Natalie Zweig came in to finish it. Zweig had two hits, including an inside-the-park home run. Stephanie Perez had two hits and two RBIs. 

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District softball: Academy at the Lakes 2, Canterbury 1

ST. PETERSBURG – Canterbury has been the standard bearer in softball at the small school level. 

The Crusaders have won 11 straight district titles and have been to the state semifinals eight of the past nine seasons. 

Academy at the Lakes is trying to get to that level. 

The Wildcats have done some impressive things with nine straight playoff appearances. But AATL has only been to the state semifinals once during that span. 

The biggest stumbling block is getting past Canterbury, which has beaten the Wildcats in the postseason each of the past four seasons, including AATL’s lone state semifinal appearance in 2013. 

The power could be shifting. 

On Wednesday, the Wildcats beat their nemesis 2-1 in the Class 2A, District 5 championship game. It marked the first time the Crusaders did not win a district title in Jody Moore’s 12 seasons as coach of the program. 

“I have the utmost respect for Jody and what she has done with that program,” AATL coach Diane Stephenson said. “That’s where I’m trying to get with this program.” …

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District softball: East Lake 7, Pinellas Park 2; Countryside 5, Seminole 0

CLEARWATER – The rematch is set.

Top seeds East Lake and Countryside face each other again on Thursday, this time with the Class 8A, District 7 title on the line.

In Wednesday's doubleheader opener, No. 2 East Lake slowly dismantled Pinellas Park, 7-2, behind the pitching and hitting of Tori Brennan.

During the crucial part of the contest, Brennan was virtually unhittable, retiring 13 straight Patriots at one point. Brennan finished with a four-hitter, striking out one and walking none.

“Just like in the Palm Harbor tourney (a couple of weeks ago), all I could do is throw my pitches and trust that the defense has my back," Brennan said. "All of my teammates are backing me up and that really helps.”

Brennan got to pitch in at the plate as well, contributing three singles to the 10-hit attack of the Eagles (17-4, 7-2 in district play) while driving in a pair as part of four-run fourth inning.

“I haven't hit in a while,” Brennan said. “They put me in because I was doing well in practice.” …

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District softball: East Bay 4, Bloomingdale 3

East Bay starting pitcher Haley Murphy delivers a pitch in the first inning against Bloomingdale Wednesday, April 26, 2017 in Valrico.

Chris Urso | Times

East Bay starting pitcher Haley Murphy delivers a pitch in the first inning against Bloomingdale Wednesday, April 26, 2017 in Valrico.

VALRICO — As Kylan Armstrong stood on second base in the seventh inning Wednesday, she thought of the mistake.

Six frames earlier, the East Bay senior and Piedmont (Ga.) College signee had been easily nabbed at the plate trying to score from second to end the first. And for what seemed like forever, the Indians had failed to get anywhere close to doing so again, coming up empty time after time against Bloomingdale ace Alexys Lawson.

Then came the sixth. Down three in the Class 8A, District 6 semifinal, the Indians dramatically rallied to knot it up. And one inning later, Armstrong's shot at redemption came after she reached on a fielding error. This time, there was no need to worry.

By the time Rachel Kingery's one-out rocket landed over the head of the centerfielder, Armstrong was already cruising home. With shrieks of joy echoing from the visitor's dugout, she scored to lift third-seeded East Bay to a wild 4-3 upset, putting it back in the playoffs for the first time in two years.

The Indians (17-8) face No. 1 Plant City in Friday's final. The Raiders defeated Durant 5-2 in the early game. …

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District softball: Land O'Lakes 10, Wesley Chapel 0

NEW PORT RICHEY – The last time Land O'Lakes faced district rival Wesley Chapel, it was the Wildcats who surprisingly came out on top 2-0. 

With the Gators and Wildcats splitting the regular-season meetings, something had to give on Wednesday night at River Ridge. Land O'Lakes' Callie Turner not only brought it to the mound, but at the plate as well. Turner's bat came alive against Wesley Chapel in the middle innings and the Gators defeated the Wildcats soundly, 10-0 in six innings to win the Class 6A, District 7 championship.

"Whenever Callie (Turner) comes up to bat, something exciting is going to happen," Land O' Lakes coach Mitch Wilkins said. "Either it's going to be a big swing strikeout or she's going to get a big hit." 

Land O' Lakes (24-3) rode the left arm of Turner, who held Wesley Chapel to no runs. Turner ended the evening by striking out seven batters and allowed just four hits through six innings. Turner gave herself run support in the bottom of the second inning, when she doubled to left and scored Ashley Smith and Brooke Stanley.  …

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District softball: Chamberlain 8, Gaither 1

TAMPA – Chamberlain definitively erased the memories of its last meeting with Gaither, easing past the host Cowboys 8-1 Wednesday to win the Class 7A-8 district championship.

Gaither plated four runs in the bottom of the seventh to win 8-7 back on April 11, but there was no such drama this time as the top-seeded Chiefs (23-3) pounded out 12 hits and got a two-hitter from Gabby Vallee.

“We were for sure motivated tonight,” said Maddie Lewis, who went 4-for-4. “We just wanted to come out here and do what we can do, which is basically hit the crap out of the ball.”

Fresh off having the flu deal her a similar treatment, Chamberlain’s Reganne McCarl supplied a putaway two-run single in the fourth inning. The Chiefs scored all their runs in the third and fourth, highlighted by Lani Trent’s bases-loaded double in a five-run third.

Outside of an error, no baserunners reached against Vallee after a leadoff single by Caitlin Minor in the fourth. Vallee struck out six.  …

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District softball: Tarpon Springs 5, Boca Ciega 1

GULFPORT – Devyn Howard hit a solo home run and Mackenzie Smith had a two-run double to lift Tarpon Springs to a 5-1 win against Boca Ciega in the Class 6A-9 district softball championship game.

Howard led off the second inning with a blast over the centerfield fence to give the Spongers (12-8) a 1-0 lead. 

It appeared that one run would be all that was needed as Boca Ciega pitcher Caylie Van Auken and Tarpon Springs pitcher Jenna Wojnar settled in.

The Spongers put two runners on in the third but Van Auken struck out Emily Merino to end the inning. 

Boca Ciega (14-4) put together its first threat in the bottom of the fourth, but Wojnar escaped the jam when Mia Blasingane was retired on a pop fly.

Tarpon Springs made the score 3-0 in the top of the sixth behind RBI singles from Bria Denamen and Cameryn Maga.

The Pirates tried to stage a late rally when Carmen Perez’s two-out RBI single scored Nayeli Rodriguez to make the score 3-1 and put runners on the corners. Wojnar got out of the inning when Decker Lavely grounded into a fielder’s choice.

The Spongers closed the door in the top of the seventh when Wojnar and Howard reached on singles and scored on Smith’s double to rightfield.

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St. Petersburg basketball stars Darius Banks, AJ Ford sign

St. Petersburg’s Darius Banks, left, and AJ Ford sign with James Madison and Richmond, respectively.

Bob Putnam | Times

St. Petersburg’s Darius Banks, left, and AJ Ford sign with James Madison and Richmond, respectively.

St. Petersburg’s Darius Banks and AJ Ford, who helped the school’s boys basketball program reach the state semifinals in 2016 and the region final this past season, each signed with Division I-A colleges.

Banks, a four-star recruit, signed with James Madison. The 6-foot-4 guard picked the Dukes over Florida Gulf Coast and USF. Banks made his decision largely on the comfort level he had with James Madison coach Louis Rowe, a former standout with Lakewood 1990-92.

“Other coaches wanted to talk only about basketball and what it could do for me,” Banks said. “Coach Rowe was real with me, and it just helped knowing that he was from St. Petersburg.”

A four-year starter, Banks helped the Green Devils reach the region final every season during his career, as well as make the state semifinals in 2015 and the state championship game two years ago. He became the school’s all-time leading scorer in December before missing nearly two months with an ankle injury. He came back in time for the district tournament.

Ford, a 6-8 forward, signed with Richmond. His decision to join the Spiders broke family tradition. Older brothers Quincy and Sajon both went to Northwestern. …

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State tennis: Boca Ciega's Jessica Stefan matches sibling in titles

Special to the Times

Jessica Stefan won the Class 3A individual singles title on Tuesday.

Special to the Times

Jessica Stefan has always looked up to her older brother, Dan. Now a sophomore tennis player at Vanderbilt, Dan won a state championship two years ago at Boca Ciega. Jessica, a junior at the school, wanted to follow in his footsteps.

She did just that Tuesday, winning the Class 3A girls individual singles title with a 7-5, 6-1 win over April Sanchez of Jacksonville Atlantic Coast.

“People are always asking me if I’m going to be like my brother and win a state championship,” Stefan said. “Well, now I did it, too.”

Stefan didn’t even make the state tournament as a sophomore. But this year she won the district at No. 1 singles and earned a trip to Orlando. In the first round she won in straight sets, 6-0, 6-2. Then came an epic match against top seed Sasha Belaya of Viera.

Stefan lost the first set 6-3 and trailed in the second 4-1. She needed to get her game together, and fast.

“I don’t know where my head was at,” Stefan said. “I was thinking to myself, I’ve got to get it together. I started thinking about the talk I had with my brother before the match and it motivated me. I started playing better and ended up winning the set.” …

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9A-8: Newsome 3, Alonso 1

TAMPA – With the deepest, most talented senior class in school history, Newsome coach Autumn Dunn knew she had to enjoy last season as much as she could.

The Wolves, who won the school’s only state title in 2015, were nationally ranked up until their season ended unexpectedly a year ago with an upset loss to rival Alonso in the region final. 

After bidding adieu to five senior starters, all of whom are playing in college, conventional wisdom suggested Newsome was in store for a rebuilding season, a campaign in which unseasoned players could gain experience under the cover of lowered expectations.

That was not what Dunn – or the Wolves – had in mind. 

On Tuesday, the Wolves' young lineup continued its second-half surge, beating defending state finalist Alonso 3-1 in the Class 9A, District 8 semifinals. 

The win snapped a three-game losing streak to the Ravens dating to last season. Newsome (15-9) will play at top-seed Palm Harbor University in Thursday’s championship game. The Hurricanes advanced with a 12-2 win over Sarasota Riverview. …

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4A-4 softball: Tampa Catholic 16, Calvary Chr. 7; AHN 8, Berkeley Prep 1

CLEARWATER – One key hit and Tampa Catholic's offense was off and running.

In the nightcap of Tuesday's Class 4A, District 4 semifinal round at the Eddie Moore Complex, the Crusaders were in danger of another major squander. TC put six of its first 11 batters on base against Calvary Christian but only had one run to show for it.

That was until Alexa Russo came to the plate. With two outs and down in the count 1-and-2, the sophomore slashed an outside fastball that hit right on the rightfield chalk, scoring No. 9 hitter Olivia Mendez (first of three singles) along with leadoff batters Grace and Gabby Burleigh (two of their four walks).

The key hit – the Crusaders' lone extra base hit out of 14 on the night – lifted TC to a 16-7 victory. 

"I knew lately that they would be working me outside. I got the pitch I was looking for an I drove it," said the USF commit, who finished with three hits and a walk with four runs driven in. "We knew that if we got our offense fired up, we'd score a lot of runs."

The Crusaders (18-8, 10-3) took advantage of three Warrior errors in the third frame to score seven times, getting their first 10 batters on base to essentially put the game away at 11-2. …

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6A-7 softball: Wesley Chapel 6, River Ridge 1; Land O'Lakes 14, Pasco 1

NEW PORT RICHEY — A first in Wesley Chapel softball program history was accomplished on Tuesday night at River Ridge High School: The Wildcats are going to the postseason. 

A feat that hasn't been done since Wesley Chapel opened its doors back in 1999 finally became reality, as the Wildcats used a big first inning to get by host River Ridge 6-1 in Tuesday night's Class 6A, District 7 semifinals. Wesley Chapel next faces Land O'Lakes, who defeated Pasco 14-1 in five innings in the first semifinal. 

"Last year we enjoyed winning a district tournament game for the first time in school history," Wesley Chapel coach Steve Mumaw said. "This year we split with River Ridge and split with Land O'Lakes and we came into this tournament with the goal of winning a semifinal game and moving onto regionals."

All the pressure the Wildcats (18-5) needed to put on the Royal Knights was right in the top of the first inning when Wesley Chapel loaded up the bases with no outs, then continued to roll up six runs against River Ridge starting pitcher Melanie Rogers. Three hits, two errors and a walk later and Wesley Chapel was in command with a 6-0 advantage. …

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7A-10 softball: Sunlake 9, Osceola 7

LAND O' LAKES – The slogan "2DFA" has adorned the Sunlake softball dugout since the beginning of the season, a sign of what the Seahawks were playing for all year. 

"Today (is) For April. Well, this is April!" said an exultant Sunlake coach Nelson Garcia, after his team earned the school's first-ever playoff trip with a scintillating 9-7 victory over Osceola.

The rest of their April will be hard pressed to match Tuesday's Class 7A, District 10 semifinal. The No. 2 seed 
Seahawks fell behind 4-0 before retiring a batter, tied it by the third inning on Riley Baxter's three-run homer en route to leading 7-5, only to see Osceola's Megan Weisenberg tie it a two-run shot of her own in the fifth. 

And the drama was still coming in droves after that, with controversy mixed in. Sunlake went ahead in the sixth on four straight two-out singles from the bottom of the order, all after a tremendous double play turned by Warriors third baseman Kayleice Hooks on a Baxter liner. …

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8A-4 softball: Strawberry Crest 2, Freedom 1; Wharton 11, Wiregrass Ranch 1

TAMPA — By the time Kacey Fultz took one final glance around the infield in the sixth inning Tuesday, the butterflies within had reached their peak.

In the most toilsome of situations — runners on second and third with two outs —  in the most pivotal game — a season-deciding Class 8A, District 4 semifinal — one misfired dart to the catcher would prove catastrophic to Strawberry Crest's razor-thin, one-run advantage over Freedom.

The sophomore righty turned and stared through a protective face cage for a moment at her glove, hand fidgeting across every stitch on the neon-yellow ball. Then, with a deep breath and one last swing of her arms, she hurled a pitch — an inning-ending groundout to escape unscathed.

Fultz sighed again as she headed back toward the visitor's dugout. This time it was one of relief, and eventually, elation as the third-seeded Chargers held on to clinch a postseason spot with their 2-1 upset of the No. 2 Patriots.

The Chargers (13-11) face top-seeded Wharton in Thursday's final. The Wildcats (15-5) mercy-ruled Wiregrass Ranch 11-1 in six innings in the nightcap.

"It was a little stressful there for a minute," said Fultz, who missed a 7-3 loss to Freedom on March 30 because of shin splints.

"But it was really nice. I mean, it got a lot of stress off of me."

Early on, it looked as if the stress would never cease. Freedom (15-10) struck quickly in the bottom of the first, turning a two-out fielder error by Chargers second baseman Taylor Finney into the game's first run on Ellis Erickson's bunt single two batters later.

But Fultz, who entered 9-6 with a 4.06 ERA in 15 appearances, never broke. In turn, Finney made up for the blunder.

Following a lead-off triple from Celia Higgins to open the third, Finney tied it with a sacrifice fly to right field. Brianna Moffitt then gave Strawberry Crest the lead for good, driving home Brandy Ashmore later in the frame.

"The girls, they knew that this could be it," Chargers coach Mindy Miltner said. "They played together and pulled it off."

From there, it was all Fultz. She finished the complete-game gem by sending the Patriots down in order in the seventh.

"We're all just really close, and we know how to fight back," Fultz said. "We all just built each other up to get the win."

Wharton never trailed in the second semifinal, forcing the overmatched Bulls (12-14) to use three pitchers in the game. Asia Thomas' two-RBI double highlighted a four-run fourth. Florida Gulf Coast commit Jordyn Gendron added a two-run triple in the sixth, scoring on Hannah Perkins' one-out fielder's choice to end the game.

For Miltner, it will be another test against the Wildcats, who throttled the Chargers twice in the regular season by a combined 21-3. 

"We talked about it in the beginning of the year: our goal is what we needed to do," she said "And we had some issues through the last half of the season, but ... they've played hard, they've played together and we'll see where it takes us from there."

No pressure.

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6A-9 softball: Tarpon Springs 5, Dunedin 0

GULFPORT – Tarpon Springs advanced to the District 6A-9 softball championship game with a 5-0 win against Dunedin on Tuesday at Boca Ciega High School.

The Spongers (11-8) will play Boca Ciega (14-3) for the district championship Wednesday.

Tarpon Springs used an aggressive running game to early run support for pitcher Jenna Wojnar, who dominated Dunedin’s hitters in a two-hit shutout.

Hunter Ruch gave the Spongers a 1-0 lead in the top of the first when she stole second base and advanced around the diamond on a throwing error.

Tarpon Springs pushed the lead to 4-0 in the second inning after Morgan Mills scored on a passed ball and Abbey Dickson and Mackenzie Smith scored on a fielder’s choice.

Dunedin (15-11) made its biggest threat on offense in the bottom of the fourth when Sadie Weld broke up Wojnar’s perfect game with a single and Ally Kifer walked to put runners on first and second with two outs. Wojnar, however, recovered and struck out Brianna Duttry on three pitches.

The Spongers added a run in the top of the fifth off an RBI single by Devyn Howard, and Wojnar retired the last nine batters in order to complete the shutout. 

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