VERO BEACH — To become the first Pasco County team and just the third from the area to win consecutive state titles, Land O’Lakes knew it had to get past a familiar — and determined — opponent in Thursday’s Class 6A championship game.
The Gators faced Plantation American Heritage, renewing one of the state’s best rivalries.
Two years ago, the Patriots beat Land O’Lakes in the state semifinals. Last year, Land O’Lakes got revenge by knocking off American Heritage in the title game.
This time, it was the Patriots who had payback in sight.
American Heritage took back the title, beating the Gators 5-1 to win its ninth championship overall.
The Patriots did it by playing small ball. They bunted. They were aggressive on the base paths. And they got timely hits.
"We watched them (in Tuesday’s semifinals) and they bunted a lot," Land O’Lakes coach Mitch Wilkins said of American Heritage. "They didn’t do that at all last year, but we knew they were going to change things up. We were prepared. The field conditions were a little rough, and some things got away from us."
The new approach by the Patriots was done to make contact against Callie Turner, one of the best pitchers in the state. The Gators ace was dominant in last year’s title game, allowing five hits and recording eight strikeouts.
American Heritage (22-8) consistently put the ball in play, forcing the Gators’ infielders to play defense. And when there was a mistake, the Patriots capitalized. Land O’Lakes (25-7) committed two errors and had a wild pitch in the first two innings, all leading to runs.
Down 1-0 in the bottom of the first, the Gators got things going on offense. Turner and Brianna Lindner each singled with one out. Tia Williams, who played a key role in last year’s title run, delivered again with a single to bring home Emily Proctor, who was pinch-running for Lindner, to tie the score at 1.
That is as close as Land O’Lakes would get.
American Heritage scored two runs in the second inning to take the lead and added two more in the fifth. Turner allowed four hits and finished with seven strikeouts. Williams was 2-for-3 with an RBI.
Afterward, there were few tears.
The Gators have been on a remarkable run. They made it to the state semifinals for the third straight season, winning a title and finishing as a runnerup in that span.
Land O’Lakes loses a few key seniors, such as Lindner, Williams and Ashley Smith. But the team also returns several key starters, chief among them Turner.
"We were going at it so hard that we were probably overdoing it in the championship game," Williams said. "But I’m proud of the fact that we made it to states all three years that I was on varsity. Mitch is a great coach, and I couldn’t have asked to play for anyone better. He has really turned the program into a contender."