Reigning state softball champion Plantation American Heritage awaits Ponte Vedra in Class 6A semifinal

By Will Brown

 

will.brown@staugustine.com


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For the past month, Ponte Vedra’s softball team has practiced on Saturday mornings.

What began as an attempt to put in additional swings and work on their fielding has blossomed into a bonding experience that has aided the Sharks’ voyage to the FHSAA Class 6A semifinals at Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach. Their hope is those weekend workouts will produce one more Saturday morning together.

But before Ponte Vedra (21-7) can dream of Saturday’s state championship game against either Land O’ Lakes (27-3) or North Fort Myers (27-3) the Sharks must dethrone reigning state champion Plantation American Heritage in today’s 11:05 a.m. semifinal.

American Heritage has been Florida’s best softball program this century. The Patriots are making their 10th state semifinal appearance since 2004 and vying for their eighth state championship in that span.

Like Ponte Vedra, American Heritage has slugged its way to Vero Beach. The Patriots (24-3) are hitting .447 as a team and averaging 8.5 runs per game.

“We have balance,” said American Heritage coach Marty Cooper. “We have more balance than most teams. We have slappers. We have people who hit the ball. We have people who are contact hitters. We feel very comfortable moving runners and doing what we have to do to win ball games. … I have a lot of seniors in my lineup, kids who have been in situations for many years. That gives us, I believe, a little bit of confidence in the postseason.”

American Heritage is heading to state for the sixth straight season. The senior class – which includes Tennessee commitment Brooke Langston at second base, Yale commitment Sydney Grobman as the designated hitter and Florida Gulf Coast commitment Ahnie Jumper behind the plate – is 100-13 with a pair of state championships.

Jumper will be a teammate of Ponte Vedra outfielder Farley Callaghan next year. Callaghan said Ponte Vedra has taken its time finding its best form in morning workouts at times, which will make Friday’s warmup and focus critical.

Callaghan quipped the team’s Thursday night meal of chicken Parmesan and a cookie skillet may be just as important as Ponte Vedra’s pregame intensity.

During the postseason, the Sharks have been locked in at the plate, hitting .523 as a team and scoring 57 runs in five district and regional playoff games. What has been just as important as the outstanding offense has been the ever-improving defense.

After losing to Atlantic Coast 4-3 to end the regular season, the Sharks promised themselves that any mistakes made in practice would be rewarded by running laps.

The lapses have subsided, but it’s still an area the Sharks are honing ahead of today’s game. Ponte Vedra will need it, because American Heritage is a team that will put the ball in play. The Patriots have a .529 on-base percentage and have struck out only 52 times all season.

“Minimizing the errors, no errors, (and) focusing on every play,” Sharks shortstop Michelle Leone said. “If we minimize the errors, we can’t lose.”

When Ponte Vedra last met American Heritage, in a 2014 state semifinal, the Sharks committed four errors and allowed the Patriots to score three unearned runs in a 4-0 loss.

“My belief in softball is it’s not always (the team) that hits the best that wins,” Cooper said. “It’s the team that makes the most mistakes loses. In fast-pitch, it’s such a difficult game to get hits in. Putting the ball in play is so important and if you can create those mistakes, it gives you an opportunity to score some runs.”

Cooper has won seven state championships in his 14 years at the Broward County powerhouse, so he knows of what he speaks. In his nine previous trips to the state tournament, American Heritage is an unblemished 9-0 in the semifinals.

Ponte Vedra freshman Olivia Zitello would love for that number to change. Her sisters, Taylor – who recorded Ponte Vedra’s only hit three years ago – and Abby, were on Ponte Vedra’s 2014 team that lost to the Patriots. Taylor was also a sophomore second baseman on the 2012 team that lost to Belleview in the state semifinals.

A win would give Zitello bragging rights over her sisters – as well as twin brother Tommy who is a member of Ponte Vedra’s football and lacrosse programs.

“I have been here watching for a long time,” said Olivia, who is hitting .350 with 10 runs scored in 12 games played. “It’s weird to be on the field instead of watching.”

It may be surreal to be back at state, but there is no place the Sharks would rather be.

CLASS 6A STATE SOFTBALL

At Historic Dodgertown, Vero Beach

Today’s Semifinals

Ponte Vedra (21-7) vs. Plantation American Heritage (24-3), 11:05 a.m.

Land O’ Lakes (27-3) vs. North Fort Myers (27-3), 12:20 p.m.

Championship

Saturday, 12:35 p.m.

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