CLERMONT - In a season that late flurries of runs and exciting finishes were the norm, the Ridgeview High Lady Panthers softball team got silenced at the batters’ box by a 13-strikeout juggernaut …
CLERMONT - In a season that late flurries of runs and exciting finishes were the norm, the Ridgeview High Lady Panthers softball team got silenced at the batters’ box by a 13-strikeout juggernaut pitcher as Eustis High, the top seed in the Class 4A Final Four tournament, eeked out a 2-0 state semifinal win Wednesday morning in Clermont.
“She was really good and I knew we would be in a battle,” said Ridgeview coach Casey Thompson, who theoretically, without the COVID shutdown of last year, could have been in a third straight Final Four tournament. “I credit the teams we play like Clay five times, Oakleaf a couple times, Keystone Heights and Middleburg, all right here in Clay County, with preparing us and themselves to this level of play. It’s a shout out to the entire county’s talent level. Last year’s team was just as deserving.”
Thompson capped the season with a second record-setting wins campaign with 22 wins his first year and 26 this year.
For the Panthers; Ridgeview’s Panthers as Eustis also the Panthers, the rough outing was highlighted by just four hits on the day; two from Brittany Michael, one from sister Brooke Michael and one from Ashlyn Halford, all the seniors for coach Casey Thompson as the next couple o of years will feature grizzled veterans of possible four varsity seasons. One of Brittany Michael’s hits was a late-inning double that, had history repeated the season trend, should have turned into a six or seven run rally for the Panthers.
“Ashlyn was a big part of keeping the team focused on games that were tight,” said Thompson. “In the dugout, one of the loudest was Dani Rios who kept the dugout energized. It all mattered.”
Notable for the year, freshmen Mary Girgis and Haylee McCrae, were tremendous sparks for the Panthers who finish at 24-3 with a district and region title in the pockets.
“My younger kids; Mary, Haylee and the rest of the team now know what it takes to get where we were,” said Thompson.
Eustis pitching sensation Libby Levendoski, herself just a sophomore, iced the Panther’s batting lineup then proceeded to up the ante with a 16 strike effort as Eustis (27-1) won the first state softball title for the school against Brooksville 5-0 the following afternoon. Eustis was state runnerup in 2017.
Ridgeview opened with whiffs to the top of the lineup with Brittany Michael and Girgis both going down swinging before Halford grounded out.
Two walks and a single by Michael on the mound proved costly as Eustis capitalized with the first run of the day. Michael did whiz two batters in the inning to keep pace with Levendoski as the game slowly became a “who blinks” first contest as both pitchers were intent on holding the line.
In the third, Eustis put two baserunners in play with a walk and a single, but Michael ratcheted out a three pitch strikeout to command the inning while putting the final batter to bed with a groundout as well.
In the fourth, Ridgeview had their first opportunity for runs with singles to Halford and Brooke Michael, but both were stranded via strikeout and ground out.
Michael gave up a 3-and-2 walk in the fifth with Eustis banking a sacrifice bunt and single to go to 2-0.
Michael’s power double came in the fifth and a hard line drive, but Girgis struck out as the third out, but a sense of momentum came from the inning.
In the sixth, Halford reached on a dropped third strike to again ignite some energy in the dubout, but Levendoski fired away to snub the attempt.
“Ashlyn creates the spark, but that pitcher was just that good,” said Thompson.
Ridgeview had one final shot to get on the scoreboard with KK Watts reaching on an error on a ground ball, but a grounder and quick strike stab of a Brooke Michael sliced ball to third base got caught by Eustis first baseman Audrey Ruby for the final out.