ORANGE PARK - Ridgeview High freshman third baseman Haylee McCrae saw her coach Casey Thompson windmilling his arm like an airplane propeller when she hit second base and just sprinted for all she …
ORANGE PARK - Ridgeview High freshman third baseman Haylee McCrae saw her coach Casey Thompson windmilling his arm like an airplane propeller when she hit second base and just sprinted for all she was worth to complete an exciting inside-the-park home run jaunt that vaulted her Lady Panthers to the Class 4A Final Four with a thrilling come-from-behind 6-5 region 1-4A championship win Friday night over Baker County High School at Ridgeview High School. Baker County was a region 1-5A finalist in 2019. Ridgeview was a Class 6A Final Four finisher in 2019.
“I told myself to layoff that first pitch and then went for it” said McCrea, who also created a walk-off single to beat Clay earlier in the season. “As I rounded first, I looked at Coach and just put it on autopilot. As I rounded second, I knew he was going to send me.”
Ridgeview (26-3) will travel to Clermont to face top seed Eustis (25-1) on Thurs., May 20 at 10 a.m. with the other bracket having Hernando (25-4) and American Heritage (15-8) set to play at noon. Hernando was a Final Four finisher in 2019.
In other region playoff action, Oakleaf, in region 1-7A, lost to top seed and still unbeaten University High 7-6 while, at Pace High School, in region 1-5A, Middleburg High’s surprising season finale ended with a 3-2 lead falling prey to a comeback and a final 8-5 loss. Pace scored seven runs in the fifth inning to win their first region title since 2007. Middleburg finishes at 15-15.
Oakleaf fell behind 6-0 into the fifth inning before tying the game in the seventh only to give up the gamewinner in the eighth inning off a ground ball with a baserunner at third base. Trinidi Murrell blasted a two-run homer to tie the game in the seventh inning. Oakleaf finishes at 17-9.
In the Ridgeview vs. Baker County game, with a head first dive, McCrea looked up. “I ate the dirt a little bit, but I made it. I looked up and she didn’t have the ball. Right there I thought, we’re going to win this.”
McCrae’s heroic sprint tied the game after Baker County had built a seemingly unsurmountable 5-1 lead into the fateful seventh inning.
For Thompson, who will return to Final Four status for a second season in his short tenure as head coach, there was never a doubt his freshman was going to get the green light to be the hero, but the run simply tied the game at 5-5 after Ridgeview fell behind 5-1.
“It’s championship softball and I had to take a risk,” said an elated Thompson. “She’s not the fastest, but I think they underestimated her will to win and kind of took their time getting the ball back into play from the hit to right field.”
The dual error “in the park” homerun ignited an inferno of emotion in the dugout as the team knew they would at least get to play extra innings with the score tied at five. After the second out, eight pitches later, including four foul balls, another Haley; this one Haley Bartlett, walked to put the winning run on first base.
With nothing to lose with the tied game, it was all on the table when Giana Michel stepped into the batter’s box. On the first pitch, Bartlett stole second putting her firmly into scoring position. On a one strike, two ball count, Michel punched a shot to center field that scored Bartlett for the walk-off 6-5 win.
“The girls took it upon themselves in the middle of the fourth inning,” said Thompson after spotting Baker County a 5-1 lead. “They told me they were going to score at least three runs, and then then go and score four. These girls have hearts of champions. They never quite on themselves and they dug deep.”
After scoring the four runs by Ashlyn Halford, McCrea, Bartlett, and Natalie Foret, the energy in the dugout exploded and the Wildcats knew they left the cage door open on the wrong cats.
“When we scored the four runs, I knew right there we were going to win this,” said McCrea.
Thompson, emotionally spent after the thriller, knows his team has been finding a way to win all season.
“My Freshman McCrea and my Senior Ashlyn Halford have been on fire all year long,” said Thompson. “We make the joke all year, because they always seem to drive in the winning runs. So their phrase is “I clutch much”. Haley will admit, she is not our fastest runner, but she knows when to dig deep and she did.”