On Wednesday, one of the North Suncoast’s premier players, Lecanto senior catcher Amber Atkinson, was expected to officially sign with Indian River State College.
For her, what a week it has been and it’s only halfway over.
On Tuesday in the Class 6A, District 6 semifinal nightcap at Ocala-West Port, the southpaw Atkinson put on a clinic behind the dish and at the plate to seal the fourth-seeded Lady Panthers’ come-from-behind win over top-seeded Central, 6-4.
Forget the fact that the Lady Panthers (15-12) were attempting to avoid being swept by the Lady Bears (18-9) this spring after Central had solved the Citrus County crew twice by one run, 10-9 and 2-1.
Three light-tossing Lady Panther right-handed pitchers combined to scatter a game-high nine Lady Bear hits to advance the Lecanto nine to its seventh regional appearance next Thursday.
With the win, LHS will tangle with archrival Citrus in an all-Citrus County finale Thursday at West Port. Second-seeded Citrus advanced by solving third-seeded Springstead, 8-7.
Not only did Atkinson handle three different pitchers under the intense playoff conditions but helped calm a Lady Panther defense that converted all 31 chances it faced.
With the glove, Atkinson displayed her versatility in the fourth.
CHS frosh pitcher Kaeleen Koehler had led off the frame with a single, but was replaced by courtesy runner Viv Ortiz.
When reliever Amanda Myers’ offering glanced off the receiver’s glove, Atkinson hustled to retrieve it and fired a dart at shortstop Amber Russo, who tagged out Ortiz.
How critical was the throw out? With two outs, Ali Lucky singled and Aalliyah Roberts coaxed a walk. So instead of the bases loaded and one out with Myers facing the county’s top hitter, senior Katie McCarthy, there were two outs.
McCarthy crushed a 2-2 pitch high and deep into the corner of left field. Paige Richards made the catch within three feet of a three-run homer. But had Atkinson not cut down Ortiz, McCarthy’s blast would have at least served as a sacrifice fly.
LHS, which was limited to five hits by Koehler, made the most of its limited opportunities by utilizing some daring base running.
In the third inning of a scoreless affair, Lily Parrish (who came in hitting .257) reached on an infield single and quickly stole second base. Jordan Martin (.313) sacrificed Parrish to third for the first out.
Koehler, who fanned seven against one walk, fanned Atkinson, but the third strike popped out of catcher Alex Eisenhauer’s glove.
On instinct, Atkinson raced to first attempting to beat out the throw. Eisenhauer’s relay was in time to first sacker Rachelle McLean. But Parrish released for home plate on Eisenhauer’s relay to easily score, 1-0 Lady Panthers.
CHS countered with its only lead in the bottom of the frame.
With two outs, McCarthy (.500) coaxed a clutch walk before advancing to second on a wild pitch by starting pitcher Danielle Yant. Casey Vsetula (.365) followed with a looping single to left placing runners at the corners.
Junior Hannah Charlwood (.318) followed with a RBI single plating McCarthy. Eisenhauer (.415) guided a ground ball single to left to plate Vsetula, 2-1 Lady Bears.
At this point, LHS’ eighth-year skipper Robert Dupler replaced Yant with Myers. Myers enticed McLean to ground out to end the threat.
LHS took advantage of the Lady Bears’ shaky defense to plate three unearned runs in the fourth.
Russo (.390) led off with the game’s only free pass off Koehler followed by an infield single by frosh Amber Hopkins (.405). A wild pitch pushed both runners into scoring position.
CHS’ sixth-year skipper Tyson Ellis countered by moving his infield up. Junior Kelsie Lilly grounded sharply to Rhy Venturella at second base, but her ensuing relay skipped past Eisenhauer allowing the fleet-footed Russo and Hopkins to score, 3-2.
With one out, Myers responded with a perfectly executed bunt single – her first hit of the season. Courtesy runner Courtney Ray replaced Myers at first and quickly stole second.
Just like the inning before, the third strike bounced in and out of Eisenhauer’s glove. Eisenhauer did throw out Parrish at first but on the relay, Lilly scored on the heads-up play from third, 4-2.
The Atkinson show and tell wasn’t over.
With one out in the seventh, Atkinson launched Koehler’s first offering over the left-center field fence for her second tater of the game, and her team-best and North Suncoast-high ninth of the season, 6-2.
“As a senior this could have been my last game,” declared Atkinson, who came into the game hitting a robust .426. “I’m so thankful for the team. Players don’t win alone. I can’t thank my teammates enough.”
Atkinson praised Myers’ middle-inning relief. Myers (2-0) faced nine batters in 2 1/3 innings allowing two hits in shutout relief.
“She definitely stepped up before she was hit by a pitch late in the game,” described the 18-year-old Atkinson. “She was able to put it all together tonight.”
Despite Atkinson’s pair of bombs, CHS did not roll over quietly.
Bree Martin replaced Myers on the hill and worked a 1-2-3 sixth and retired the first two batters she faced in the bottom of the seventh.
With two outs, McCarthy doubled before Vsetula reached on an infield hit. A walk to Charlwood loaded the sacks. On four pitches, Martin forced home McCarthy with a free pass to Eisenhauer. McLean cracked a clutch RBI single plating Vsetula.
With the sacks jammed, Martin dug deep and fanned the dangerous Koehler (.310) for the game’s final out.
The Lady Bears were attempting to reach the regional playoffs for the first time since 2002.
“One of the keys tonight was we definitely didn’t hurt ourselves with errors,” noted Dupler. “I’ve said this before, we’re a pretty good team when we don’t make any errors.
“Tonight we ran the bases better than we have all season,” added Dupler. “It’s a testament to how hard these kids have worked to beat such a good Central team. We played the toughest schedule we could to get this far.
“I feel terrible for (Central coach) Tyson (Ellis),” said Dupler. “What a job he’s accomplished over there. That’s a good ball club. He deserves credit for that team’s turnaround.”
From the home dugout, Ellis did not specifically point fingers at any one person or any one item.
“Atkinson is a phenomenal player. We saw that all night,” described Ellis. “They didn’t get many hits off lefty (Koehler), but Atkinson drove the ball twice on her.”
On the keys to the game, “We didn’t play the type of defense that got us here,” said Ellis on his team’s 32-of-35 effort. “Maybe our kids were a lot more nervous than they were showing. This
(chance to reach a district final) is all new terrain to us.
“I will say I liked that we went down swinging,” noted Ellis. “There are no regrets. The girls fought all year. At this point, I can’t take anything away from them. I credit our seniors for turning this around. No one expected us to be in this position – all the credit goes to the girls.”
Lecanto 6, Central 4
123 456 7 R H E
LEC 001 310 1 – 6 5 0
CEN 002 000 2 – 4 9 3
LEC – Yant, Myers (3), B. Martin (6) and Atkinson.
CEN – Koehler and Eisenhauer.
W – Myers (2-0). L – Koehler (11-8). S – B. Martin.
2B – McCarthy, Charlwood (CEN).
HR – Atkinson 2 (LEC).
Records – Lecanto (15-12), Central (18-9).
Class 6A, District 6 Tourney Recap
04-15: Quarterfinal at Lecanto
Lecanto 12, West Port 6
04-16: Semifinals at West Port
Citrus 8, Springstead 7 (8 inn.)
Lecanto 6, Central 4
04:18 Final at West Port
No. 4 seed Lecanto vs. No. 2 seed Citrus, 7 p.m.