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Ex-Lecanto star keeps shining

The key pitcher in the Panthers' capture of the 1996 Class 4A crown is leading Culver-Stockton in its pursuit of a berth to the national tournament.

By CAREY FREEMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001


The years may come and go, but some things never change.

Take former Lecanto standout pitcher Michelle Rowe.

It doesn't seem to matter who you talk to or when the question is posed, the reactions and opinions always are the same: Great kid. Coach's dream. Winner.

It has been almost five years since Rowe, then a sophomore, sparked the Panthers to the only fast-pitch softball state title in Citrus County history, but the accolades continue to pour in for the diminutive player whose heart and smarts have led her to the top at every level she's played. "There isn't one thing that stands out," said Culver-Stockton (Mo.) College coach Jim Webb, who also coached Rowe for two seasons at Lake City Community College. "She does everything well and uses resources others don't.

"When she looks at a batter, she knows where to throw the ball," Webb said. "She knows who the best hitters are, and she'll walk them before she allows a hit. She has total dedication. The team can trust her to work harder and do anything for anybody, which makes for good team unity."

Whatever it takes. It is Rowe's mantra and a theme that has played out rather successfully for the Wildcats. An all-state pitcher in high school and a junior college All-American at Lake City, Rowe's biggest impact this season has been her hitting.

In leading Culver-Stockton to an NAIA regional tournament, Rowe posted a team-best .435 average, 10 doubles and 20 RBI and was one of three Wildcats named to the Heart of America Athletic Conference (HAAC) team. She logged a 12-6 record and a 1.83 ERA on the mound, including three shutouts.

Rowe and Culver-Stockton have set their sights on the national championship. After winning the HAAC crown last week, the Wildcats will be the third seed in the NAIA Region V Tournament, which starts Monday.

"If we win this tournament, we go to nationals," Rowe said. "We could do it, but we've had some injuries that will make it hard.

"Some of the teams we know. Evangel (Springfield, Mo.) won the regular-season title. We've played them five times and beaten them four times, and we might end up playing them again. They are a good team, but all the teams are good."

Making history

There were a lot of good teams between Lecanto and the state title in 1996, but that didn't seem to faze a scrappy group led by an even scrappier sophomore.

That was the year Citrus County got to know Michelle Rowe, the season the Panthers beat the odds and captured the Class 4A championship. What people may not know is that the run almost ended before it began.

Lecanto coach Amy Lilley was the focus of a team walkout in the early weeks of the season -- a mutiny that put Rowe between her teammates and coach.

"We were running a lot and doing a lot of conditioning, and people were unhappy," Rowe said. "I wasn't really unhappy, but I didn't want to go against my peers, and I didn't want to go against my coach.

"We had problems, and we had people that didn't come back to play," Rowe said. "Going into that season, we never would have thought we had a chance to win a state championship."

Slowly but surely, things began to change. A pivotal point came in an 18-inning victory over Citrus -- a game that's become somewhat legendary in local softball circles. Rowe pitched the full 18 innings against the duo of Gina Reynolds (Stetson) and Laura Helt (Pasco-Hernando Community College), leading the Panthers to a 6-1 victory.

"I remember I had to go to the bathroom so bad during that game," Rowe said. "But that was probably one of my most memorable games. It was sweet that we got to play it at home, and it was nice that I got to pitch all the innings. I was tired, but I wasn't going to let (Citrus) know that. A big part of the game is acting."

Rowe's act served her and Lecanto well after they defeated Crystal River for the district title. Her mannerisms -- a walk around the pitching circle, a pump of the ball in her glove and a Cheshire cat-like grin to opposing batters -- almost were as memorable as her domination on the mound.

Yet it was Rowe's control and ability to master the mental part of the game that truly set her apart in triumphs over Starke Bradford County, Eustis and Jacksonville Bishop Kenny in the regional tournament. In a sign of things to come in the state tourney, Rowe allowed just two runs in those three games, striking out 35 batters.

"She knew exactly where to pitch and what to pitch," Lilley said. "She studied the batters and had a log on all of them. She'd go in with a little notebook, sit behind the backstop and do a log on them.

"She wasn't even allowed to get ice cream with the rest of the team after we won the state semifinal because her dad made her stay back and go over the pitching report with him. But we did sneak back some chocolate chip ice cream for her."

Rowe was equally impressive in the final four, racking up eight strikeouts in each of the two wins -- 8-3 over Rockledge and 2-1 against Lake Wales in the championship.

"I would say that state championship will always be one of my best memories," Rowe said. "We had never been there before, and we were the first ones to do it.

"What I will remember most is all the work that went into it -- the pre-season conditioning, the couple games we almost lost and just how hard it was and how much work we had to put in for that to happen. It took everybody ... everybody, not just one person."

One-girl show

Despite her obvious talent, Rowe couldn't do it alone in her last two years at Lecanto. This was evidenced by the fact the Panthers didn't return to the final four in those seasons.

"Of course, it was a little frustrating," Rowe said. "But you've got to do the best with what you have. My dad always says, "Blossom where you are planted', and I've always tried to do the best with what I have."

Rowe's father, Ray, always has been an integral part of her life and softball career. They learned the game together and practiced daily, something Ray says his shins -- banged by softballs for nearly six years -- can attest to. It's an experience that brought the two even closer. "When you have a father/daughter relationship like that, it's special," Ray Rowe said. "It was common ground for us to come together on. I'm not into makeup or doing hair or pajama parties, so it really was a special time for me. It was great."

Michelle never made it back to state prominence, but she caught the eye of several college coaches. Among those was Webb, who was at Lake City CC when Rowe graduated.

As she did with Lilley, Rowe and Webb formed a special relationship. Rowe blossomed into an All-American for the Timberwolves, leading them to state crowns in 1999 and 2000.

"She's a hard worker, and she's made me a better coach," Webb said. "Good players will do that.

"She's supportive in every way," he said."And besides being a great softball player for me, she babysat for my children (Joel, Nathan and Sarah) and occasionally did things with my family. We got to be pretty close."

Dream vs. passion

As a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, Rowe always had dreamed of attending Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City. However, while that dream was realized after her stint at Lake City, it began to clash with her passion for softball.

Just one week before Rowe was to begin classes at BYU, Webb took the job at Culver-Stockton.

This presented an interesting conundrum for Rowe, who liked BYU and Webb. Adding to the confusion was the fact BYU's softball team wasn't interested in a 5-foot-6 pitcher.

"I got into BYU and that was my dream," Rowe said. "I would have loved to play for them, but I'm small and they are a really good (NCAA) Division I program.

"I was fine going to school and not playing ball. I really liked it there. But when coach Webb offered me a chance to play two more years, he kind of opened my eyes.

"I realized I wouldn't be playing my last two years in college, and I didn't realize how much I would miss playing," she said. "I'm glad I came back to play, but it was hard."

For Webb, the decision was easy. A winner at every level he's coached, Webb quickly began to turn things around for the Wildcats, and Rowe was a big part of the success. As always has been the case, Rowe found ways to contribute even though she wouldn't be Culver-Stockton's ace. "She's not big, and she doesn't throw it real hard -- she just beats those people," Webb said. "BYU had two pitchers on their roster that she beat (in junior college). They were 6-foot and about 170 pounds. They were interested in their height and their speed, but Michelle knows how to pitch. Now she's leading us in hitting here.

"At Lake City, she was such a good pitcher she didn't get to bat much. But Michelle just has heart. I always know Michelle will do a great job and that she'll give us a good performance every time out. I'm glad she played for me over the years."

The title run

Lecanto became the only Citrus County team to win a fast-pitch softball state championship in the spring of 1996. Here is a look back at how star pitcher Michelle Rowe and the Panthers did it.

REGION QUARTERFINAL

LECANTO 10, STARKE BRADFORD 0 (5 INNINGS): Rowe strikes out 10 batters and drives in Gwen Francis for the game-ending run.

REGION SEMIFINAL

LECANTO 3, EUSTIS 2: Rowe fans 15 batters and scores the winning run after legging out a bunt and stealing second and third base. Loran Vybrial belts an RBI triple and scores on Rowe's bunt.

REGION FINAL

LECANTO 1, BISHOP KENNEY 0: Rowe strikes out 11 and scores the decisive run on a single by Kristen Troiano.

STATE SEMIFINAL

LECANTO 8, ROCKLEDGE 3: Rowe fans eight, and Francis scores two runs.

STATE FINAL

LECANTO 2, LAKE WALES 1: Rowe strikes out eight. Francis scores the tying run on a sacrifice fly. Danielle Zembower drives home the winning run with a second-inning single.

ROWE'S POST-SEASON TOTALS: 14 hits, 6 runs, 52 strikeouts.

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