Let the games begin District softball tournament action begins Monday - Sunday, April 23, 2017 at 11:29 pm -C.J. Risak

Since mid-February, four teams at four schools in the county have honed and refined and sharpened their skills with this single common thought in mind: Let the benefits of those efforts surface this week.

It’s district tournament time in high school softball. Sure, you’d like to win the 20 to 25 games you played during the season, but the truth is they don’t mean much. As Lecanto softball coach Robert Dupler often says, it doesn’t matter much if you win every one of those contests, then lose your first district tournament game.

Here’s a look at the opening-round games, with Citrus and Lecanto competing in the 6A-6 tourney at Crystal River.

6A-6 TOURNAMENT

Hosted by Crystal River

Tonight’s first-round: No. 5 Lecanto vs. No. 4 Citrus,

5 p.m.; No. 6 Weeki Wachee vs. No. 3 Dunnellon, 7 p.m.

Tuesday’s semifinals: Lecanto/Citrus winner vs. No. 1 Springstead, 5 p.m.; Weeki Wachee/Dunnellon winner vs. No. 2 Crystal River, 7 p.m.

Thursday’s championship game: 7 p.m.

Unlike last year, when Springstead rolled through the regular season unbeaten in district play, this year it was highly contested. Springstead, Crystal River and Dunnellon each went 8-2 in 6A-6 games, and each one split their games against one another.

Springstead emerged with the top seed and the Pirates got the second through tiebreakers, giving them

opening-round byes. And that means a struggling Lecanto team, which lost its last five district games, must face a surging Citrus squad, winner of eight in a row.

"It’ll be the rubber match, we won the first one, they won the second," Dupler said. "It’ll come down to whichever team doesn’t blink."

Citrus hasn’t blinked much in the last few weeks. Among those eight-straight wins is a 4-2 triumph over Lecanto. What the Hurricanes have going for them is a powerful offense (team batting average of .371) and a resurgent force in the circle in Katelyn Parks.

"I couldn’t be more proud of Katelyn, the dedication and effort she’s put in to fixing some things we had going on early in the year," Citrus coach Larry Bishop said. "She’s definitely corrected it, she’s settled down and kind of found her groove, a lot of her pitches are coming back to her."

She’ll need them against Lecanto, which got a mercy-rule win over the ’Canes in their first meeting. The Panthers also have strong pitching, whether they use Aleyese Geier or Becca Schuler.

The excellent earned-run averages posted by this duo — Schuler’s is 0.93, Geier’s is 2.11 — also indicates a team problem. Of the 73 runs they’ve allowed, only 28 are earned. Lecanto has committed 79 errors, an average of more than three a game.

"If we can clean that up, we can get hits when we need hits, we’ll be all right," Dupler said. "When you get to the tournament, you’ve got to turn the switch on. You know where you’ve made your mistakes in the past, it’s time for the girls to put everything together and try to play the best game they can play.

"The team that puts together the toughest resolve is usually the team that walks off the field with a W."

Offense has been a problem for Lecanto, which has a team batting average of .273 compared to Citrus’ .371. The ’Canes received a pleasant surprise when Wharton was given the OK to return in a hitting role. She’s done just that: In the eight games she’s been the designated player, Wharton’s hitting .350 with a double, two homers and eight RBI.

"Whenever we play (Lecanto), whatever anybody’s record is, it’s one of those rivalry games, you can never tell what might happen," Bishop said. "We’re just focusing on ourselves.

"We want to continue to play good defense, we want to get something good out of our circle, and we want to hit the ball. If we can do those three things, we feel good about our chances."

The winner will play Springstead (21-4 overall, 8-2 in 6A-6), a team that went 4-0 against them this year, beating Citrus 13-1 and 7-0 and topping Lecanto 12-1 and 12-2.

"In order to win the district championship, you’re going to have to beat the best," Bishop said of Springstead, which reached the Final Eight last year. "We look forward to the challenge."

Tuesday’s second game will feature a very strong Crystal River team (19-4 overall, 8-2 in 6A-6) and whoever emerges from the Dunnellon/Weeki Wachee contest. The Pirates are rolling, having won 10 straight while allowing a meager 13 runs.

They’re doing it with solid defense (38 errors this season, 1.7 a game) and exceptional pitching, particularly from Jaden Vickers (10-3 record, 1.14 ERA, 156 strikeouts in 104 innings pitched). Four of the team’s 10-consecutive wins ended in a shutout.

"The girls have played well the past few weeks," Pirates coach Cassidy Rash said. "We have been in numerous low-scoring ball games which have allowed the girls to gain experience in pressure situations.

"Being in a tough district, I think the girls need to be exposed to these types of games."

The offensive support comes from a core of seven regulars, all batting over .300, led by Alyssa Hamilton (.439), and eight players in double figures in RBI, paced by Haley Coleman’s 18.

"I think there are many very good teams in our district," Rash said. "Each team has the opportunity to capitalize and move on into regionals. Every team has to play to their potential and want to be in the final game Thursday night."

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