PALM HARBOR -
Palm Harbor University absorbed Wharton's best shot early Thursday afternoon and then spent the rest of the day flexing its offensive muscles during an impressive 8-4 victory.
The win sends the Hurricanes into a Class 8A region semifinal rematch from 2012 against Durant High. The Cougars beat East Lake on Thursday, 11-0, to set up the Tuesday afternoon showdown at PHU.
Although the 'Canes rebounded nicely from Wharton's initial barrage, it looked for a moment like it might be another tough day for Pinellas County softball in this 2013 postseason. Both Countryside and Dunedin were ousted from their respective brackets on Wednesday.
Wharton took advantage of a wild pitch and error in the second inning and jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead. With one out and runners at second and third, a fielding error on Meagan Bell's RBI base hit to left allowed both to score and Bell to advance all the way to third. Nicole Keesee promptly brought home Bell with a ground out to third to make it 3-0.
Rather than let the pressure of the moment get to them, though, the Hurricanes immediately slugged their way back into the game in the home half.
Left fielder Alayna Gallagher got PHU going with a lead off single, which started a nine-batter, six-hit, five-run frenzy that put the 'Canes ahead for good.
“We got punched in the mouth a little bit but we reacted pretty well, I think,” said PHU coach Kerry Katchuk.
“We knew we had a lot of game left to play and we believe in each other,” said shortstop Jessica Adams, who capped her day with an opposite-field solo home run in the fifth. “We bounced right back and we have a lot of confidence because we're a team with a lot of fight in us, so we tend to come back when we're down.”
Adams noted that the Hurricanes had recorded two hits and put runners at second and third in the first inning. Despite not scoring a run, it kept the lineup from overreacting to Wharton's initial lead.
Adams and second baseman Logan Lilley both turned in three-hit days as the PHU bats raked for 14 total, six of which went for extra bases. Two of those extra-base hits came from catcher Claire Hamilton. Toughing out an illness that caused her to be sick prior to the game, the senior sent a pair of doubles into the outfield gaps and drove in three runs.
“It's been a rough kind of week but it turned out to be okay,” Hamilton said of contributing to the team's big day while not feeling well.
Earning the victory from the circle Thursday was PHU starter Rachel Taylor, who limited the Wildcats to just six hits.
“She bounced back,” Katchuk said of his junior lefty's ability to shrug of the early deficit. “She's had some great games this year and she's had some tough games, but against the good teams she's shown up and that's pretty impressive.”
“I told Claire and my infield that I'm not worried and they said they weren't worried,” Taylor said. “So as long as we're all calm, cool and collected that's all I can really ask for. If they have my back then I have theirs.
“I just kept telling myself that I've done this before and I can do this again. I just tried to focus back in on Claire's glove because me and her have that relationship where she trusts me and I trust her.”
Wharton bats never truly found a rhythm against Taylor, scoring only one more time after the three-run second. Wildcats center fielder Kassidy Kujawa sent a two-out solo homer to left in the sixth that brought the score to its eventual 8-4 final.
Kujawa and Bell both had two hits apiece for Wharton, whose rollercoaster season ended with a record of 12-9.
PHU will host Durant on Tuesday afternoon at 4:00. The Cougars edged the Hurricanes 6-5 last year at Durant.
Wharton - 030 001 0 --- 4-6-0
PHU - 051 020 x --- 8-14-2
WP – Rachel Taylor
LP – Mak Dooley