Mustangs have three pitchers who could see time in the circle Tuesday against Oakleaf

VERO BEACH

The Lakewood Ranch High softball team used three pitchers when it met Oakleaf High in the semifinal round of the Tournament of Champions on March 16 at the Knights field in Orange Park.

It was by design.

“We believe in getting data, getting information,” Mustangs coach T.J. Goelz said. “It’s helpful to us to learn hitters’ strengths and weaknesses and pitchers’ strengths and weaknesses.”

Along with recording a 7-6 victory over Oakleaf, Lakewood Ranch received a couple of bonus innings of information, as the game went nine innings.

The teams will meet again, this time in the FHSAA Class 8A State Semifinals at 4:05 p.m. Tuesday at Historic Dodgertown. The game was postponed twice — it was originally scheduled for Friday, then moved to Saturday because of inclement weather in the Treasure Coast area.

While Lakewood Ranch bowed out in the regional final last year to Plant City, Oakleaf won its first state title in program history.

By luck of the draw, the Mustangs will get to meet the Knights in a semifinal for a second time this season.

Goelz started Brooklyn Lucero, an edge pitcher with a screwball and curveball, in the Tournament of Champions semifinal in March. The sophomore right-hander worked four innings, allowing seven hits and four runs, one earned, while striking out two.

“They are a good, strong hitting team,” Lucero said earlier this week. “I didn’t have my best stuff that day. But if I get the opportunity to pitch against them again, I hope to have a better outcome."

Mustangs sophomore Payton Kinney, a rise/drop pitcher, followed and pitched 3.2 shutout innings, allowing two hits and a walk while striking out four.

“Everyone on that team can hit," Kinney said. "You just have to learn their strengths and weaknesses and keep them off balance with my rise and drop.”

The Mustangs also used Kailey Christian for the other 1.1 inning. She gave up two hits, a walk and a run. However, she is the team's regular shortstop and likely won't pitch Tuesday. So if the Mustangs need to go to a third pitcher this time, it will be junior Kayla Howard.

“I would come in more mentally prepared,” Howard said. “They are a strong team. If I do get a chance, I will definitely fight as hard as I can. It’s just all mental.”

Howard, who has pitched 24.2 innings, worked the final inning in the regional final against Plant City.

“It was an amazing mindset, because it definitely kept me in control and gave me a show of what is actually going to happen,” she said.

Kinney has logged the most innings for the Mustangs (84.1), going 10-2 with a 1.08 earned run average, 107 strikeouts and 18 walks.

Lucero has logged 40.2 innings with a 7-1 record and 2.07 ERA with 37 strikeouts and three walks. When she is not in the circle, Lucero usually serves as the team's designated player, carrying a .433 average.

“I pay attention to the game, watch the hitters and their tendencies and watch my pitchers and see how they react and know what they are throwing. That helps keep me on my toes,” she said. “When I’m hitting, I see how the umpire is calling the game, what the size of their zone is. It’s helpful.”

Goelz will decide between Kinney and Lucero as Tuesday's starter, but will not be afraid to mix and match depending on the situation.

“We’ll change looks,” Goelz said. “We don’t have to let anybody see the same pitcher two or three times ... not to say we won’t.”

The key is preventing the opposition from getting big innings, and by Goelz’s standards, that is two runs.

“If it looks like it’s going to be worse than that, we’ll make a change,” he said.

Still, Goelz has confidence in all three pitchers.

“Brooklyn and Payton have pitched in big games,” he said. “We’ve thrown Kayla in tough situations and she’s answered the call. All three are throwing the ball extremely well.”

The previous game against Oakleaf was not a classic by any means, as the teams combined for nine errors, five by Oakleaf.

“We’re going to have to do a better job of that this time around,” Goelz said. “Last time, we made a couple uncharacteristic errors on small ball that were regular plays that we turned into big plays. If we do a better job of that this time around, we can limit some runs.”

He thinks the game will come down to pitching.

“We’re going to have a plan. We’ve got to execute,” Goelz said. “They’re some high-level hitters there. Having seen them one or two games is not going to give us everything. But one game is better than no games. It’s definitely going to help us.

“They’re the closest team I’ve seen to us offensively, one through nine. They can do damage at any time. We’re going to need all three (pitchers).”