It will take the Lakewood Ranch High softball team more than two hours to reach Naples tonight for the Mustangs’ Class 4A-Region 3 championship game.
When each player steps into the batter’s box, she will then have three-tenths of a second to make a decision, which will determine her fate.
That’s how it is when Jaclyn Traina is on the mound for Naples, and be assured, she will be there.
The right-hander is the reason Naples is ranked No. 1 in the country by USA Today and ESPN Rise. Her fastball has been clocked at 63 mph, which is equivalent to a baseball pitcher throwing in the low 90s. Figure in the shorter distance from mound to home in softball, and batters face a ball that is coming at them at about 100 mph.
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Traina has thrown two straight perfect games and is averaging 1.8 strikeouts per inning. The right-hander has every decision in the Golden Eagles’ 28-1 record with her only blemish a 2-1 defeat to Palmetto Ridge.
The Alabama-bound senior struck out 18 of 21 batters she faced in the Golden Eagles’ 2-0 region semifinal victory over North Fort Myers and no ball got out of the infield.
The players on Lakewood Ranch (25-3-1) can approach this game in two ways.
They can look at the odds against them and feel overwhelmed, or they can see a chance to capture a Kodak moment, one they can tell their children and grandchildren about.
It’s not often in high school that you get to face the country’s No. 1-ranked team in any sport. A case could be made that this game is for the national championship and certainly a win could put these girls in some pretty select company.
No one outside of Manatee County gives Lakewood Ranch a chance, and the girls have to see the beauty of that.
So if you are head coach Joe Dowling, you are telling them about the “Miracle On Ice,” Super Bowl III, the 1969 New York Mets and more recently the 12-point underdog New York Giants victory over the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Locally, there is Manatee’s upset over nationally-ranked No. 1 St. Thomas Aquinas in the state football playoffs last season. And in 2004, the Southeast High girls basketball team ended the 120-game win streak Jacksonville Ribault had against Florida schools.
The sports world is full of David and Goliath stories, and tonight the Lakewood Ranch softball team has a chance to carve out one of its own.
The Mustangs have a couple of aces up their sleeves in Corey Hanewich and Rachel Slowik, who have signed with Division I schools.
Hanewich is going to perennial national power Stanford and has faced pitchers from all over the country in travel ball. Slowik showed in the region semis she has nerves of steel and her bat alone can carry a team.
Naples head coach Robert Iamurri is worried about those two and with good reason, though he can’t help but have confidence in his ace and his program. In 26 years at Naples, he has won 12 state titles and has more than 700 victories.
“What makes Jaclyn so effective is she can hit her pitches, and if a batter has a hole in their swing, she will find it,” Iamurri said. “We’ve had about five all-state pitchers here and she throws the hardest. The batters have three-tenths of a second to decide whether they want to swing or not and that’s tough. Ranch has two definite standouts (Hanewich and Rachel Slowik), but the margin of error is still pretty high.”
Dowling has revved up his pitching machine to 100 mph and will likely have his batters stand further back in the box. Otherwise, no changes.
“Our kids have the belief that you’ve got to beat us,” Dowling said. “They point out we’ve got a player going to Stanford and one to FIU, so we must be pretty good. We take the attitude that every team we face is a Division I college team and that is the way we are going into this game.”
Alan Dell, sports reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2112.