LAKEWOOD RANCH -- The Lakewood Ranch softball team played just two opponents with losing records and faced six that reached the state final four within in the past two years.
"We had to decide do we want a glamorous record and go home early or do we want to battle against the best and go to states?" Lakewood Ranch head coach Tony Cummins said.
He had help in making the decision.
Lakewood Ranch assistant coach Kelsey Grabiak was a freshman on the only Mustangs softball team that went undefeated in the regular season back in 2005.
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Those Mustangs, led by pitcher Melissa Dowling, began the season ranked first in the state and won 23 straight before losing 1-0 to Port Charlotte in the district semifinal on a sacrifice fly with one out in the seventh inning.
"I have never forgotten that game," said Dowling, who went on to play NCAA Division I and professional softball. "It was just bad luck. But we won the program's first district title (2003) and put it on the map. Softball is a game of seasons, and the playoffs are a separate season. "
Cummins has taken the approach that you can't avoid upsets but you can reduce the odds of becoming an upset victim if you play the
Dover Strawberry Crest and New Port Richey River Ridge, the teams Lakewood Ranch defeated in the final two rounds of the region tournament, took a different route.
Strawberry Crest played only six teams with winning records; River Ridge faced seven. They were a combined 52-5 and ranked ahead of Lakewood Ranch.
The Mustangs bring a 20-9-1 record to the Class 6A state tournament Friday in Vero Beach, but are more confident than last year, when they were ousted in the opening game by eventual state champion Pembroke Pines. This is a veteran team that has played many of the state's best.
Lakewood Ranch faces Lake City Columbia (26-4), which is the top-ranked 6A team in one poll. It's a young squad with only three seniors. The Tigers don't score a lot of runs, and their starting pitchers are not overpowering.
The matchup appears to favor Lakewood Ranch.
"I definitely think the tough schedule is a plus," said centerfielder Taylor Newton, a four-year starter.
"Everyone thinks we are underdogs because we have nine losses, but our schedule has us well-prepared. Being there last year helps. We were too anxious, too jittery. I am still excited about going, but I am looking to win and then go all the way."
Last year, the Mustangs were happy just to be in the state tournament; that's not enough this year.
Cummins vows he will be calmer.
"It was nerve-wracking. We didn't know what to expect and ran into a buzzsaw of a pitcher," he said. "All the nervousness from last year is gone. I have never seen a team so calm as this one. Even me, I wasn't as focused as I should've been."
Adding to the Mustangs' confidence are pitcher Amanda Rak and outfielder Jackie Schoff, who have been flying under the radar.
Rak is an unheralded sophomore who hasn't gotten a lot of notoriety. It might because of the right-hander's 14-7 record. But she has a 0.94 ERA and has struck out 170 in 132 2/3 innings.
Rak shared the pitching duties with Korrin Cline until Cline was injured.
"My pitchers are always going to suffer (in publicity) because I don't use just one," Cummins said. "Pitchers and catchers get hurt, and if you only use one pitcher and she is injured, you can go down fast. Amanda is a light-hearted kid. Once she steps inside the circle, she pitches old like a senior."
Rak came into relieve in last year's 4-0 loss to Pembroke Pines and showed maturity as a freshman not allowing an earned run in 4 2/3 innings.
"I feel extremely confident. I am so pumped and ready for this game. I feel we can go all the way," she said.
Lakewood Ranch's best kept secret is outfielder Jackie Schoff. Due to injuries, the sophomore will come into this game a virtual unknown, but she has verbally committed to Auburn and has received offers from USF and Florida State.
"She is a five-tool player," Cummins said.
Schoff could only hit last year because of a shoulder injury. She played travel ball during the summer and batted more than .400 before injuring her shoulder again. She has had only 10 at-bats this season but says she is ready.
"I had surgery for my labrum and shoulder. I've had physical therapy for the past four months and my shoulder is back to normal," she said. "The (college) coaches like my speed. It has definitely been frustrating with all the injuries, but I am throwing and running again."