• Bailee Driggers delivers a pitch for the Palatka 14-and-Under Babe Ruth All-Star softball team during the District 3 Tournament. Palatka opens play this morning in the state tournament against Clermont. (CHRIS DeVITTO / Palatka Daily News)

Babe Ruth All-Star State Softball: Palatka's Early Risers

14-U team set for back-to-back 8 a.m. games; one of five area teams playing

Manager Tom Taylor isn’t really sure who he upset. But his Palatka Babe Ruth 14-and-under All-Star softball team players might be accused of excessively yawning this morning.

“Yeah,” Taylor started while laughing. “We seem to draw the short end of the straw in a lot of things.”

The two-time District 3 champion will start its run to a possible state championship at the worst possible hour to start anything – 8 a.m. – against Clermont in the opening round of the 14-and-Under tournament at the Southside Complex in Lake City. Even worse, win or lose, Taylor knows his fate for the second game his team plays in the double-elmination tournament.

“Eight o’clock, win or lose,” he said. “That’s the worst part. No matter if we win or lose, that’s what time our next game is.”

And with his young players, he has to take precautions when it comes to the extremely early starting time.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Taylor said. “We’ve had our girls out early practicing and then we’ve had them with the sleeping bags still on them. It’s a roll of the dice really. I’ve contacted the parents hoping that the girls get a really good night’s sleep and come out to the field hydrated. The heat won’t be a problem in the morning, but the humidity will be. I hope what we’re preaching to them shows up first thing in the morning.”

As of Wednesday night, Taylor said he still wasn’t sure as to who he would give the ball to this morning for the opener, but it would be one of his two main pitchers, either Bailee Driggers or Makayla Clemons.

In spite of the early time start, Taylor said he and his players are enthused with the chance to maintain its unbeaten record together, but mostly to atone for the disappointment of losing early in the state  tournament last year and being eliminated by the third game.

“I’ve talked to the parents and, of course, our players and they’re all feeling good about this,” Taylor said. “It’s a team (Clermont) we’ve never seen before. There’s always the apprehension of playing an unknown team, but it’s just a softball game. We’ve got to go out and play and not fall out of our routine. Personally, we can beat anybody as long as we can stay in together.”

Taylor’s 14-and-Under district champions are one of five teams playing in the five-day event at the Southside Complex. The Palatka 12-and-Under All-Star team of manager Joel Allbritton, consisting mostly of players who were second in the state a year ago in the 10-and-Under state tournament, will be on the opposite end of the spectrum from the early-rising 14-and-Under team. The district champion 12-U team will open play at 4 p.m. after drawing a first-round bye and will face either Umatilla or Jacksonville Argyle, who play in the morning.

The 16-and-Under tournament is a four-team event, but three of the teams playing were the three representatives at the District 3 tournament – champion Melrose, runners-up Keystone Heights and third-place Palatka. The trio of teams will be joined by West Volusia Athletic Club of Debary.

The champion Melrose team of manager Quintina Duggan will have a rematch of the District 3 championship at noon Friday against Keystone Heights, while Palatka, managed by Carl Stallings, will face off at the same time against West Volusia.

Duggan said she was not happy to hear that her state tournament consists of just four teams and three of them were from the district tournament her team was a part of.

“The girls have to play the same girls that we competed against at district,” she said. “It’s exciting to play at this level, but playing the same teams isn’t fun. We only have one new team we’re going to see (West Volusia).”

The heart and soul of Melrose’s team is veteran pitcher Daranae Donley, but other players on that team have also made strong contributions, mainly outfielder Jozie Bruce, catcher Emily Flint and first baseman Amiyah McCrae.

“Daranae keeps the girls together,” said Duggan, who like Taylor is an Interlachen High graduate. Duggan graduated in 1999, while Taylor is a 2003 graduate. “A lot of teams go off the vibe of their coaches, but with us, they go off of Daranae because she’s done it for a long time. She sets the whole thing going.”

The other team to play in the state tournament is the Palatka 8-and-Under team of manager Brent Myers. The team took third in the district tournament behind two Santa Fe teams it lost to in head-to-head play, and will be in the lesser Diva Division. Palatka faces off with either the host Columbia County team or North Tampa at 4 p.m. in a second-round matchup.

All the finals are to be played on Monday with the exception of the 16-and-Under tournament, which will play its final at 4 p.m. Sunday.

Palatka Daily News

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