VERO BEACH — Land O’Lakes made the state semifinals last year for just the second time in school history.
At the time, that accomplishment was good enough for the Gators.
On Friday, Land O’Lakes made it back to the state semifinals.
This time, the Gators did not have that same happy-to-be here mentality.
Determined to take another significant step, Land O’Lakes beat North Fort Myers 2-0 in the 6A semifinals to advance to the championship game for the first time.
The Gators get the rematch they wanted against Plantation American Heritage, the team that knocked Land O’Lakes out in last year’s state semifinals. If Land O’Lakes can win, it will be the first time a Pasco County team has won a state softball title since Ridgewood in 1992.
American Heritage is playing in the state championship game for the fourth straight season and is trying to win its eighth title on Saturday.
That playoff pedigree was something that did in the Gators a year ago.
“It was not a devastating loss,” Land O’Lakes coach Mitch Wilkins said of last year’s semifinals. “It was the first time that group of girls had even close to winning a state title. It was a whole new experience so they didn’t know how to react at the end.
“We now have a lot more experience. We learned how to put ourselves together at this complex and knew what to expect. We knew everything we had to do and it was much easier to go out and play a game.”
The familiarity of playing on a big stage paid off for the Gators against the Red Knights (27-4), who were making their first semifinal appearance since 2009.
In the third inning, Land O’Lakes (28-3) got all the runs it needed. Jessie McCallister singled, then came home on Tia Williams’ triple for what turned out to be the winning run.
“That was a big hit,” Williams said. “I was practicing all week hitting because I know my job is to move someone once they get on base. We’re motivated. We didn’t want to just settle for getting here.”
Brianna Lindner followed with a sacrifice bunt to score Williams to make it 2-0.
“At the beginning of the season I couldn’t lay down bunts at all and I got a little frustrated,” Lindner said. “I’ve been working on it and I’m glad it finally paid off in this game.”
Callie Turner did the rest.
The sophomore, who has committed to Tennessee, threw a four-hit shutout with nine strikeouts. It was the 10th shutout for
Turner this season.
“I woke up a little nervous, but on the bus ride I was pretty chilled out,” Turner said. “We all wanted this. It’s like going to the World Series. The first time you get there is an honor, but the second time you’re going there to win.
“Of course we came to win last year, but we were more newbies. We’re more comfortable. It’s exciting to play in the championship and have another shot at American Heritage. We want to prove a point. Hopefully, we make the correct point.”