Column: Softball Season to Savor

Peniel’s Final Four appearance, Palatka’s turnaround made it one to remember

The 2018-19 season started on Aug. 20, and the longest season involving Putnam County high school athletics came to an end nine months and one day later with Peniel Baptist Academy’s softball team losing Tuesday in Vero Beach in the Florida High School Athletic Association 2A semifinals against Academy at the Lakes of Land O’Lakes, which went on to repeat its 2A championship.

And it is there that I focus today. The Putnam County softball team had an all-around enjoyable season. For the first time since 2015, the county had two teams represented in the state tournament.

However, I go back further to a season that had so much joy to it – 2007. That’s the last time we had two county teams win district softball titles in the season, Palatka, fresh off a Final Four the year before, winning the District 5-4A title over Clay High and Interlachen winning the District 7-3A championship over Keystone Heights.

This year, this county was that close to doing that again. 

If not for that Alachua Santa Fe rally in the bottom of the 11th inning of the District 5-5A championship on its home field against Palatka, it may have happened. It didn’t happen, though, and the Panthers had the unenviable task of playing at 25-1 Eustis in a regional state tournament opener.

Palatka lost the game, 1-0. That should take nothing away from one of the truly quick turnarounds in Putnam County softball annals. The only thing that rivaled it was when Karen Baker took over as Crescent City’s coach in 2012 after the team had gone through numerous coaches over an eight-year span and couldn’t get out of its own way. Baker and assistant coach Holly Pickens brought stability to a young team and the Raiders ended up a .500 team at 9-9. Two years later, Crescent City would make the first of back-to-back state tournaments.

That happened immediately with this Palatka team. The first former PHS Panthers softball player to take over the program, all Brandi (Holley) Malandrucco did was work these Panthers hard and with the help of two other former Panther players, assistants Mindi Buckles and Shelisa Oliver, made them believe they could be better than they had been before when they won just 17 games in a four-year period.

These young ladies more than made the turn, going 16-10, and no win was more enjoyable than that 1-0 triumph in the district semifinals against top-seeded Keystone Heights, which owned two regular-season wins against the Panthers.

Only two regulars from the lineup graduate as Bre Walker and Ja’Kya Wiggins depart left and center fields, respectively. But Malandrucco and Buckles, the pitching coach return all three pitchers next year in Brittney Funk, Aubrey Brown and Clemons. Carlie Drew is back as the steady backstop to catch those pitches. And the infield of third baseman Jesenia Feggins, shortstop Jaden Musgrove, second baseman Bailee Driggers and Kortnee Booth return. In other words, these Panthers should not miss a beat.

That brings us to Peniel Baptist, which only loses second baseman Kristen Flateau to recent graduation. This team has been building nicely over the last few years under coach Jeff Hutchins. This year, the Warriors finally kicked the door down in beating District 2-2A bully Jacksonville Eagle’s View twice. It beat Interlachen in a wild 17-16 game without star pitcher Paige Bryan, who had been bothered the second half of the season by a hip injury. It played Palatka close in which the Warriors bounced back from a 4-0 deficit to tie the game in the seventh on Palatka’s field, only to lose in the bottom of the seventh, 5-4.

And for the first time in five years, the Warriors won a district softball title, edging host Jacksonville Christ’s Church, 4-3. It didn’t end there, though. Dominating wins over Tallahassee FAMU (16-0) and Christ’s Church (12-2) brought the program their first – and the school’s first – FHSAA regional title and this week’s Final Four appearance at the Jackie Robinson National Training Center against the eventual back-to-back state 2A champions. University of Alabama signee Lexi Kilfoyl was dominant in the 10-0 win over the Warriors with nine strikeouts and throwing all but 12 pitches for strikes, dominating with her drop ball and upper-60 mph pitches. The only thing that kept Peniel from being no-hit was a fifth-inning infield single by Rylee Romay.

The good news is the Warriors return almost everyone, including the battery of Bryan (16-5) and catcher Summer Langston as junior and sophomore. Backup pitcher Alexis Wallace (5-0) is also the team’s shortstop and her sister, left fielder Alyssa Wallace, returns as well. Romay returns to the hot corner at third and Lexi White comes back as center fielder, as does first baseman Dylana Lynn, and designated player Abi Collier. The outfield play needs a little more seasoning as AATL exposed in the state semifinal, but these Warriors, winners of 60 games in Hutchins’ three years, are only going to get better.

Interlachen, which struggled to an 8-15 season, most likely will escape from that private-school district its been stuck in for years, and Crescent City was young and should improve going into 2020.

And after that loss on Tuesday at the Final Four, I saw how very close-knit this Warriors team is. Lots of parents thanking everyone involved for what was the most memorable season in program history. Good parents also help to make for good-to-great seasons for their children and the programs.

Here’s hoping 2020 is just as amazing as the 2019 season was.

It was a long time coming.

Mark Blumenthal is a writer for the Palatka Daily News. You can reach him at mblumenthal@palatkadailynews.com or on Twitter.

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