Sydney McCray ran to her right as the flyball started losing steam. The Lakewood Ranch High freshman maneuvered herself under the ball and as she attempted to squeeze it for a second out in the fourth inning, it skipped away.
The resulting play pushed Winter Springs in position to score the first runs of Friday’s Florida High School Athletic Association Class 8A state softball championship played at Vero Beach’s Historic Dodgertown.
The very next hitter smacked a two-run double to the left-center field gap that saw McCray come away injured as the ball rolled past her to the fence.
That coupled with Winter Springs pitcher Aynslie Furbush’s baffling stuff and the Mustangs (30-1) saw their quest to become Manatee County’s first public school to capture a state softball title come to a close in a 3-0 loss to the Bears.
“It felt like we were just a little bit off,” Lakewood Ranch head coach T.J. Goelz said. “Just under (the pitch) a couple times. And typically second, third time through the lineup (is) when you start squaring it up. And I thought (Furbush) did a nice job.”
Lakewood Ranch’s power-packed offense had previously blown away playoff competition with six victories by 10 runs or more. Those bats, though, were quieted as Furbush allowed only one hit — a one-out McKenzie Clark triple in the seventh inning — in the shutout victory.
Goelz said Furbush threw her change-up for strikes, which made it difficult for his team to predict what was coming.
The Mustangs were kept off-balance at the plate all game, which led to Furbush facing the minimum number of hitters through the first six frames.
“I’m not 100 percent sure what the issue was,” said junior first baseman Avery Goelz, a University of Florida commit. “We all were saying we were seeing her well. It just seemed like no balls were getting through and nothing was dropping. ... There’s marks on my bat, I had it barreled but I just didn’t hit it completely solid.”
The Mustangs were also aiming to win the mythical national championship as the No. 1 ranked team in multiple polls, including the MaxPreps’ Xcellent 25 rankings.
Still, Lakewood Ranch had the tying run at the plate with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning. Claire Davidson, who has a state-best 13 home runs according to MaxPreps, came to the dish with a chance to tie it.
“I’ll take that all day,” TJ Goelz said.
Furbush got Davidson to pop out before retiring Maddie Koczersut for the game’s final out that generated a dogpile celebration for Winter Springs.
“Even though things didn’t turn out the way that we wanted it, I still won’t forget any of the memories I’ve had with any of the girls,” said Koczersut, a senior who has signed with State College of Florida. “I’m grateful for this team, and it’s just a really cool experience to have. I’m glad this is my year going out.”
Despite the loss, Lakewood Ranch had some takeaways from its fourth trip to the state final four — and second consecutive under TJ Goelz.
The Mustangs advanced further than they did last year or in their other final four appearances, and they return a boatload of college-level talent on their stacked roster for next year’s team.
“The hunger level is going to be off the charts,” TJ Goelz said. “They’re not going to want to leave high school without getting that feeling ... of getting that ring, getting that trophy.”
Added Avery Goelz: “We’re going to come out next year even harder.”
Both Avery Goelz and Koczersut said the entire team was very supportive of McCray after the error that led to Winter Springs scoring the only three runs in the game.
Jillian Herbst, who was back to batting leadoff less than two weeks after her mother passed away, was Lakewood Ranch’s starting center fielder for most of the season.
TJ Goelz said McCray was the team’s best outfielder this season and earned her spot on Friday.
“Things happen in big games,and it’s just one of those things to learn from,” he said. “I’ll think about that one a little bit, but all the coaches thought that was the best choice.”