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Thursday, Oct 19, 2017
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Cougars' inspiring comeback

So, anyone think the Durant girls are going to forget this anytime soon? Ever? Anyone who witnessed the Cougars capture the Class 8A state softball championship — you're giving me the answer already: No, no way! What Durant's softball team accomplished is one of the best stories in the history of Plant City sports. Start with the unprecedented string of comebacks early in the postseason. We've gone over them already, but it bears repeating because there were more than a couple of moments where the season could have come to an early end.
Then shift to the way it all ended. Well after midnight, early last Tuesday in Clermont. Why not accentuate the drama with a 70-minute rain delay? Yeah, they were playing after midnight. "Typically, that's not allowed. But the girls had a great time with it singing, dancing, just having fun," said Durant head coach Matt Carter. The alternative was to come back and play the next morning at 10. Safe to say Durant is just fine with how it ended up. But did you see what happened, the very moment it ended? Less than 20 seconds after clinching their school's first-ever state championship in softball, the Cougar players stopped to gather around the center of the diamond, hands joined, silently paying tribute to the person who no doubt had a major hand in all of it. That would be Antoinette Cuellar. She died from cancer May 4, but her presence was everywhere: signs, pink ribbons, and, naturally in the hearts and minds of everyone from Durant. Her daughter Olivia, the Cougar shortstop who plays with infectious passion, continued to do so somehow, and with immense support from her teammates and classmates. Seeing the girls gather, so quickly feeling the need to do so, during the time usually reserved for jumping around and going crazy, was extremely powerful. So was the stark silence that overtook the National Training Center field. "I knew they had talked about doing something special if they won," Carter said. "It was very nice." Here's where the clichés would normally come in. That it was an emotional scene. Chills, goose bumps, etc. Forget all that: I cried. It was that powerful. Need I mention the state semifinals were played on Mother's Day? Or that, following three losses in a row, that the Cougars never lost after holding Breast Cancer Awareness ceremonies on April 5, with Antoinette present? Another part of the story that will endure is the support the team enjoyed from the school. "I've never been a part of anything like that," said Durant Athletics Director Todd Long. "It was the most amazing thing." Man, was it a large and loud group of Durant students that made the trip to Clermont. And yes, Long told me, those kids were allowed a few extra hours to show up to school Tuesday. "We gave the softball players a little more time, too," he said. And to think I started to feel worried for the Cougars when they fell behind 2-0 in the championship game. I mean, it was 2-0. After being behind 11-1 in their district finals, and down to their last at-bats twice when the playoffs got going? Two runs was nothing, obviously. I should have been fully prepared for the fourth-inning rally, all after two were out, started by Brooke Freeman's single and ending with RBI singles by Jordan Lafave and Kelli Tidwell for a 4-2 lead. Freeman, one of numerous humble heroes on this squad, essentially clinched the title with a two-run homer in the next inning. Of course, there was a big home run. Durant hit more of them in the postseason than it did all regular season long. "It's been crazy," Carter said. "We were never a home-run hitting team. The girls all have power. … It just never started to happen until the playoffs. And the good thing about these kids, there was no one superstar. Just a great group." The opponents Durant beat by identical 7-2 scores (Jacksonville Mandarin and Miami Palmetto), in all due respect, were sort of academic to the Durant part of the story. Palmetto has numerous state titles already. Clearly, this was Durant's time. Back to the memories: We all have memories of our high school days. Can you imagine how ingrained this will be for these girls? Here's the ridiculous thing: There were only three senior starters, including Cuellar, Lafave and Nikki Giovenco. Workhorse pitcher Paige Davis will come back along with her catcher Alyssa Colding. Freeman and sensational outfielder Shannon Bell, they're sophomores. Home run leaders Tidwell and Kennedy Dean? They'll be back. Payton Lewis and her .327 batting average? Sophomore. The list goes on. So, yes, the Cougars might not be finished winning state titles. But that doesn't matter to me now, nor should it to anyone. One is enough for now and, for these girls, a lifetime.

Darek Sharp is a longtime prep sports writer for the Courier & Tribune and also works as a producer and host for 620 WDAE-AM. Each week, he profiles a local athlete, coach, team or something interesting in local prep or youth sports. You may send him your suggestions and comments at tbldarek@gmail.com.
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