Two rough midseason losses made one thing very clear for the Ponte Vedra softball team — make some changes or be prepared for an early offseason.
When the Sharks (21-7) face Plantation American Heritage (24-3) at 11:05 a.m. on Friday in the Class 6A state semifinals, it comes as a team with a much different mindset than the one it started the season with.
What sparked Ponte Vedra into its best stretch of the season? Defeats, two of them almost in succession, and the fashion in how they occurred. The Sharks were listless in an 8-1 loss to Bartram Trail last month, and then couldn’t stop making errors (eight of them) in a 4-3 defeat to Atlantic Coast. A team with so much promise was teetering on the edge of failing to meet its own expectations.
Those games revealed what needed to happen if Ponte Vedra wanted to play beyond the district tournament. The bats needed to get better and the defense had to start backing up hurler Michelle Holder with more reliable gloves.
So players got together and put a few new rules in place.
That meant longer practices with more swings, and then consequences for mistakes on defense. If the Sharks made an error during practice, players dropped their gloves and ran a lap. Senior Farley Callaghan said that Ponte Vedra has kept right on with that enforcement. Players ran two laps after errors in a Wednesday practice.
“We just realized that we weren’t doing enough to be where we wanted to be at the end of the season,” she said. “Something wasn’t working. We were just really upset we weren’t seeing the results we wanted. We were so determined to make it to state that we decided to start punishing ourselves if we made mistakes. We were already practicing, but we needed to make sure we were taking advantage of that.”
It wasn’t all stringent though. The Sharks also incorporated team meals the night before games as part of their midseason makeover, blending accountability with team bonding.
All of the changes have paid off. Not only has Ponte Vedra backed Holder up with better defense — a combined 10 errors since that Atlantic Coast loss — the offense has kicked into another gear.
While Ponte Vedra was a solid offensive team in the regular season (.367), it has erupted in the playoffs. The Sharks are hitting .579 with all three games mercy rule victories. They have outscored teams a combined 39-3.
Senior Taylor Bradshaw said that there’s been no secret to the playoff bats coming alive. The Bartram loss and the ensuing accountability that has filtered throughout the team have sparked the recent revival.
“That [Bartram] game was a reality check. That game was kind of the switch we needed,” she said. “Since then, we’ve played with extreme intensity.
“This whole year, we’ve had a very thorough lineup, all the way through. We talk about it all the time. Sometimes before when there was two outs and someone came up and you’d say, ‘oh great.’ That’s not the case with any kid on this team.”
The last trip to the state final four came three seasons ago for the Sharks, who were unbeaten and ranked fourth in the country at the time. American Heritage beat Ponte Vedra 4-0.
Whereas pitching was at the forefront of the Sharks final state semifinal team — Avery Geehr was the Times-Union’s top player that season — the hot bats have been the storyline lately.
Gordie Rolison, who will share coaching duties with Carlos Sotolongo as head coach Jerry Shepherd recovers from recent health issues, says the amount of ground the Sharks have covered in a short period of time has been amazing. The fact that the players alone have implemented some of the most noticeable changes shows just how seriously they’ve taken this.
“I was here when they put the first fence post in the ground, it means a lot to me to see what the girls have done with hard work,” Rolison said. “I want them to enjoy the ride, but don’t be satisfied [with just reaching the semis]. We’ve got a state championship to win.”