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Canes looking for gold — and a little clay, too

If things go Manatee’s way tonight, don’t be surprised if John Carlock breaks out a baggie.

Do you know of a better place to store a lump of clay?

Such was the custom in Punta Gorda Charlotte seven years ago, the last time Manatee won a district softball crown. And Carlock, now in his second stint as the Hurricanes’ head coach, hopes a new generation of girls will take home a piece of Lakewood Ranch’s pitching circle tonight when Manatee faces Venice for the Class 5A-District 12 title.

“We did that in Venice, we did that in Charlotte,” Carlock said following his team’s semifinal win over North Port on Wednesday. “Those kinds of things are fun to do. To me, I think it’s big to win your district.”

It just isn’t essential. At least, not anymore. Regardless of tonight’s outcome, the Canes and Indians have already clinched berths to the regional tournament, which gets underway Tuesday night.

This championship game isn’t win or go home. In Carlock’s eyes, however, that doesn’t water it down a bit.

The district champion gets a trophy. The district champion doesn’t have to get on a bus Tuesday.

Tonight’s game may not mean everything. But it means a lot.

“To have homefield advantage,” Carlock said, “is great.”

It means plenty to the girls in uniform, too. Manatee has won 45 games over the past two seasons and enters tonight’s championship tilt with a 16-0 record against district foes — including the postseason. And by winning Wednesday night, the Hurricanes were able to reach the regional round after being stonewalled in the district semifinals for the past three springs.

“It is awesome,” second baseman Ali Geiger said.

If anyone in Manatee colors has a right to be satisfied just to be playing Friday night, it’s Geiger, a senior in her fourth season on the varsity squad. When she steps to the plate during Tuesday’s regional quarterfinal, it will be her first regional at-bat.

But after driving in four runs to help bury the Bobcats, Geiger sounded anything but complacent Wednesday night.

“We definitely want it,” she said. “It’s been a long time since Manatee’s been district champions. We’re setting records already, and it’d be great to make more.”

Try telling her tonight’s game doesn’t mean much. Or try telling left-handed ace Caroline Curran, the hard-luck losing pitcher during last year’s district semifinal against Lakewood Ranch. This season, she’s 12-0.

Or try telling Carlock, who watched his young team overachieve last year and has watched this year’s team work hard to sustain the momentum.

“It’d be great for the kids,” he said. “I don’t think people expected us to be where we are this year. ... I think they deserve all the credit.”

And a few handfuls of clay, too.

John Lembo, sports writer, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2097.