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Land O'Lakes finds its niche just in time for post-season

[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
The Gators' Ashley Patton has a 14-10 record with a 1.35 earned run average.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2000

NEW PORT RICHEY -- At 1 a.m. Thursday, Jerry English was eating dinner at a Denny's on Dale Mabry Boulevard. "Everything was closed," the Land O'Lakes coach said.

Ten hours later, he was still trying to catch up on sleep, as was junior pitcher Ashley Patton and most of her teammates.

Two do-or-die games in two days can make for late nights, throw off eating schedules and sap teams of energy.

For Land O'Lakes, two do-or-die wins in two days have done that and propelled the surprising Gators to the Class 5A, District 10 championship at River Ridge.

No. 5 seed Land O'Lakes plays No. 2 seed East Lake (15-9) tonight at 7. "I said the sleeper in this tournament was going to be Land O'Lakes," East Lake coach Darius Holtzclaw said. "Jerry's got a young bunch of kids, a good pitcher in Patton and they hit the ball very, very well. They're a tough little scrappy ball team."

In truth, the Gators (14-11) weren't this good during the regular season.

They hovered around .500 all season, don't start a single senior and were the lowest seed in the 5A-10 district tournament with a 1-7 record.

"We didn't have anything to lose," English said. "Really when you come in and you're a sixth-, fifth-, fourth-seeded team, nothing is really expected from you."

Land O'Lakes has won five straight and crashed the 5A-10 tournament parties for No. 4 seed Gulf and No. 1 seed River Ridge this week. The Gators beat Gulf 9-7 Tuesday and River Ridge 5-3 in a game that didn't end until 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

"I actually think we've gotten better, a lot better as a team," said Patton, who's thrown complete games on consecutive nights. "I think we're more confident. In the beginning (of the season), we didn't go together very well. Now, everybody is hitting. Our defense is so much better. We're all more confident in ourselves."

English has had teams like this before but after 25 years on the job, he can't remember when it happened last. What makes this year's team stand out, however, is its cohesiveness.

"There are no cliques," English said. "They're very, very supportive of each other. If somebody makes a mistake, the other 12 kids go over to them right away."

Patton has been the constant in the pitcher's circle with a 14-10 record, 157 1/3 innings pitched, 180 strikeouts and a skinny 1.35 ERA.

English was unsure whether she would pitch against East Lake.

At the plate, freshman leftfielder Michelle Hausman has been unstoppable. Before Wednesday's game, she was batting a team-high .471 with 15 RBI, three doubles and two triples.

Hausman is the only regular starter batting better than .300 this season.

Both will be looked upon to produce against East Lake.

The Eagles beat Land O'Lakes 1-0 in eight innings on April 12 and advanced to the district championship by beating Ridgewood 2-1 in 10 innings on Wednesday.

"It's going to come down to who makes the least mistakes," Holtzclaw said.

In the 1-0 loss two weeks ago, East Lake won on an error in the eighth inning.

Regardless of the outcome, both are assured spots in the regional quarterfinals. For Land O'Lakes, it will be the first time since 1997 that it has advanced past the district while East Lake last reached the regionals in 1993.

The winner from 5A-10 will play the runner-up from 5A-9 (Chamberlain or Plant) and the runner-up from 5A-10 will play the winner from 5A-9 on Tuesday.

"It's going to be a good stepping stone," English said. "We're going to get to see some good teams from Hillsborough County. Year in and year out, they've had such outstanding programs. They're kind of role models."

* * *

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