MAYO — From the beginning of the season until early April, the Lafayette Hornets just couldn’t seem to get out of their own way. Making about six errors a game, the Hornets got off to a 5-10 start, which included two run-rule losses and a four-game losing streak.
What a difference it’s been in the last two months.
Everything is coming to together at the right time as they have done the improbable and advanced to the Final Four. Gone are the days when one error spiraled into five or six and led to disaster.
Lafayette (14-12) is playing great defense, down to about one or two errors per game says coach Derek Garland. And Richelle McDonald has been the ace pitcher the Hornets needed, leading her team to a 9-2 record in the last 11 games.
“It’s been exciting watching the girls continue to get better every day,” said Garland, whose team will play Sneads at 1:05 p.m. on Tuesday in Vero Beach. “We could have easily given up, but they fought. Good things come to those that work hard.”
The last time Lafayette was in a softball Final Four came in 2013. Senior second baseman Ragan Barnes was in sixth grade at the time and playing for the LHS ‘C’ team.
“I was starting out my career and looking up at everybody else and wanting to be there,” said Barnes, who grew up watching LHS softball and her sister, who played for the team and graduated in 2012.
Barnes, a vocal leader and one of Lafayette’s top hitters with a .294 average, five doubles and 12 RBIs, is epitome of this year’s team. A hard-nosed player with plenty of fight, Barnes has battled through injuries to be on the field during the playoffs.
She missed seven games during the season with a broken hand, but returned early from the injury to play with her team in the district tournament.
“We all have each others’ back,” said Barnes. “Being such a small community, we all grew up together and have that family feel on and off the field.
Added Barnes: “Starting out the season, our record wasn’t very good. It’s crazy how far we’ve come. No one thought we could do it.”
With Lafayette’s rich softball tradition — 14 straight district titles and a state championship in 2012 — success is expected every season.
But this year’s team has an underdog feel. There isn’t a superstar like a Haley Ellefson. And with a .242 team batting average and just three home runs, the lineup doesn’t spark fear in opposing pitchers.
It doesn’t seem to matter though as the Hornets just keep winning. They pulled off a 1-0 win in the district championship game as McDonald stifled Madison County hitters. That was followed by a 9-3 win against Williston where LHS bounced back from some early mistakes to dominate.
Lafayette then earned a spot in the Final Four by winning 5-4 at Hilliard. It’s been a team effort that has gotten LHS to Vero Beach as freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors have contributed.
“Me being so young, I thought this would be a foundation year,” said freshman catcher McKenzie Winburn, who has two doubles, a home run and 10 RBIs this season. “I didn’t expect to get to the Final Four.
“Throughout the year, we worked out all the kinks and made a lot of improvement defensively. Defensive is what keeps us in games. For me, it’s about being focused and knowing every play counts.”
As for the sophomore class, Hailey Peterson has provided some big hits in the playoffs while shortstop Chloe Lamb will be a key defensive player for the Hornets in the Final Four. The junior class which features McDonald, Charlie James and Jenna Nall will be vital if the Hornets want to take home a state title.
McDonald, hitting out of the leadoff spot, has a .351 average, seven extra-base hits and 23 runs scored. She’s 12-8 in the circle with a 2.68 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 128 innings pitched. James (12 RBIs) and Nall (.345 average) will be relied upon offensively.
As a motivational tool, Garland has brought back some Hornet greats to talk with the team. That includes current assistant coach Sydney Byrd, who played in three Final Fours at LHS.
“Lindsay O’Steen has come and sent messages to them, coach Byrd talked to them,” said Garland. “Let them learn about the history. I think sometimes they don’t really understand what this program is about. Now they’re a part of it.
“Next year, following years, I can talk about the 2019 team. It doesn’t matter how you begin, it’s how your finish.”
The winner of tomorrow’s game between Lafayette and Sneads advances to the state title game on Wednesday to face either Trenton on Wewahitchka.