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How'd they get here? A look at how Lake Wales reached the Class 4A state tournament (again!)

Updated: Dec 15, 2023



Welcome to state tournament week. Seven Tampa Bay area teams have punched their tickets to play in the 2023 FHSAA Softball State Championships in their respective classes, up from six in each of the past two seasons.


At Bay Made Fastpitch, instead of a traditional game preview article that doesn’t tell the full story of a team’s season, we put together a unique piece of preview content that shows that full body of work. It showcases our coverage of these teams all season long, while previewing the state championship series slate.


You’ll see what we mean as we go along.


We continue with Class 4A, where Lake Wales stands as the lone area team in that class’ semifinals. The Highlanders are in their second consecutive state tournament after falling in the Class 4A State Championship game in 2022 to Deltona. Their first opponent in this year’s tournament will be Lemon Bay (Englewood), which comes out of Region 3 after taking down Robinson on Saturday. Lake Wales enters the state tournament 19-11 and on a three-game winning streak.


FEBRUARY


2/21 – at Sebring – W, 12-2 (1-0)

2/24 – Winter Haven – W, 11-2 (2-0)

2/28 – Hardee – W, 12-2 (3-0)


We send out a coaches questionnaire at the start of every season. One of the questions on it reads, “what’s the best game to come and see,” as we start to build out our coverage schedule, especially in the early part of the season. Lake Wales head coach Mike Settle simply wrote, “everyone,” then made an emphasis that the schedule he put together in 2023 was the toughest, yet. 


It ended up being the toughest in the entire state.


MARCH


3/3 – at Bartow – L, 10-0 (3-1)

3/7 – at Lake Region – L, 4-1 (3-2)

3/9 – Sebring – W, 4-2 (4-2)


At the time, Bartow, Lake Region and Lake Wales made the top three of our Elite 8 Coaches Poll. Lake Region and Lake Wales even pulled into a tie for second before the Thunder took the first game of what became a four-game series. Bartow’s offense had one of those games where they just hit single after single to end it an inning early before a Presley Smith homer was the only offense the Highlanders could get. Sweeping the season series of Sebring was a good bounce back and it showed a nice pitching display from Kirsten McRae before an important stretch of games in Bartow.


3/10 – McKeel Academy – W, 11-1 (5-2) // Bartow Home of Champions

3/10 – Parrish Community – L, 11-0 (5-3) // Bartow Home of Champions

3/11 – Evangelical Christian (Fort Myers) – W, 5-3 (6-3) // Bartow Home of Champions

3/11 – Coral Reef (Miami) – L, 11-10, 8 inn. (6-4) // Bartow Home of Champions


A mixed bag of results, however, we learned a lot about the Highlanders. The main takeaway was they were going to have to find some way to get by without sophomore Macey Murphy, who pitched them to the state tournament in 2022, but was unavailable due to injury after the loss to Bartow. Anna Conroy and McRae would split the innings and in the beginning, it was a little shaky.


While the Coral Reef loss was gut-wrenching – primarily because the Highlanders opened up a 6-0 first-inning lead – the Highlanders could take it as a quality loss, since the Barracudas ended up being much better than what some thought they would. And a win over a perennial state qualifier Evangelical Christian always helps.


Now came some time off to get back to the drawing board.


3/24 – at Key West – L, 8-7 (6-5)

3/25 – at Key West – W, 9-2 (7-5)


After 13 days off, a weekend trip to Florida’s southernmost program turned into a memorable weekend for Lake Wales. The players and coaches got to stay on the Key West High campus, then visited the Southernmost Point buoy before heading back up north. A good bonding weekend, that culminated in two good games for Strength of Schedule purposes and was made even better by Zamya McBurrows’ 4-for-4 day in the Saturday matinee.


3/28 – at Auburndale – L, 13-12 (7-6)


Similar to the Coral Reef loss in the Bartow Tournament, this was a tough one for the Highlanders to stomach. They jumped on the Bloodhounds and took a 6-0 first-inning lead that turned into a 12-6 lead after 6 1/2, then Auburndale scored seven in the seventh to walk it off.


3/30 – University (Orange City) – L, 7-2 (7-7) // Kissimmee Klassic

3/31 – Deltona – W, 5-2 (8-7) // Kissimmee Klassic

3/31 – East Ridge (Clermont) – L, 4-1 (8-8) // Kissimmee Klassic


APRIL


4/1 – Keystone Heights – W, 6-2 (9-8) // Kissimmee Klassic


Another 2-2 tournament effort. We got our first look at Lake Wales when it took on University and saw a team that was still trying to figure things out.


The win over Deltona, though, what a big one for the Highlanders to get. The Wolves moved up to Class 5A in the latest round of reclassification, so they won’t meet in the state tournament for a second consecutive season, but meeting in the Klassic and avenging last year’s state championship loss was a big confidence booster, especially since the Highlanders were able to strike for five off Deltona ace Katie McCaw, who stymied them in last year’s state championship game.


4/4 – at Hardee – W, 8-1 (10-8)

4/6 – at Winter Haven – W, 10-3 (11-8)

4/7 – at St. Cloud – W, 12-5 (12-8)


A solid stretch for Lake Wales as it begun to string together some wins with a couple of regular season sweeps mixed in. The Highlanders started having a better idea of using Conroy and McRae as a tandem to keep teams off balance. They each made appearances in that stretch ahead of a Friday night showdown with Bartow.


4/14 – Bartow – W, 3-1 (13-8)


Woah.


That was our reaction when we saw this score come across GameChanger.


Bartow lost to one team outside of tournament play in 2023.


The Lake Wales Highlanders.


Smith and freshman Keira Davis struck for doubles as the Highlanders tagged Bartow ace Red Oxley for two in the first and one in the fifth to pull off a sizable upset. Conroy was terrific in the circle and worked around four hits and five walks to keep the Lady Jackets to just one run on 102 pitches.


4/19 – at McKeel Academy – W, 10-8 (14-8)

4/20 – Auburndale – L, 3-0 (14-9)

4/25 – Lake Region – L, 1-0, 9 inn. (14-10)

4/27 – East Ridge (Clermont) – W, 14-4 (15-10)


It’s always fun when Lake Wales and McKeel Academy get together. One of our favorite matchups of the season. Usually a high-scoring game with a ton of respect between both sides. In this one, the Highlanders and Wildcats traded six spots.


The tough schedule was beginning to bear fruit. Conroy was emerging as a breakout pitcher with complete games against Auburndale and Lake Region. She struck out eight Bloodhounds and dueled with the Thunder’s Makenna Meadows for nine innings in a scoreless game.


To round out the regular season, Lake Wales pounced on an East Ridge team that struggled toward the end of the year. They banged out 11 hits and scored 14 run-in what was a very pleasing end to the regular season.


MAY


5/2 – No. 2 Bishop Moore (Orlando) – W, 5-1 (16-10) // Class 4A-District 6 Semifinal


Lake Wales’ district checked in as one of the toughest in the Tampa Bay area. Not only did the Highlanders have to deal with a pesky Lake Region, Bishop Moore came into the district tournament 21-2 with a power lefty pitcher in Ole Miss signee Olivia Miller. Lake Wales waited her out, walked seven times and got RBIs from Lydia Denton, Smith, and Sydnie Whitaker to advance to earn a hard-fought road win.


5/4 – No. 1 Lake Region – L, 4-2 (16-11) // Class 4A-District 6 Final


Another trip back to the Thunder’s place, where Lake Wales went down early and couldn’t find a way to complete a rally against Meadows. The Highlanders, with the state’s toughest schedule, would have to find out where they would fall in the FHSAA Power Rankings to see what their playoff fate would hold.


5/10 – No. 6 Vanguard (Ocala) – W, 6-1 (17-11) // Class 4A-Region 2 Quarterfinal


What a fantastic team effort from Lake Wales to start regional tournament play. The offense was consistent with two in the first, one in the third and fourth and two in the sixth. McBurrows, Davis, Smith and Keira Morris each had two hits and Conroy threw an 88-pitch complete game five-hitter to close the book on the Knights’ season. 


5/19 – at No. 2 Eustis – W, 7-6 (18-11) // Class 4A-Region 2 Semifinal


If you thought Lake Wales’ region wasn’t tough enough, how about adding in a Eustis team

that’s two years removed from a state championship that had a fireballing rise baller in Libby Levendoski. The Highlanders didn’t seem phased, considering Morris and McBurrows hit back-to-back home runs not once, but twice.


The first pair took the lead in the second, then the second pair took the lead in the fifth. Hannah Battles hit an RBI single for insurance, then a they doubled their lead on an error in the sixth. Conroy did her part in the circle and stranded the tying run at first to send the Highlanders back to Lake Region with a state tournament berth on the line.


5/19 – at No. 1 Lake Region – W, 8-3 (19-11) // Class 4A-Region 2 Final


It took an extra day after a rain delay and a blown transformer, but Lake Wales rallied for three in the fifth and four in the sixth to finally get over the Thunder’s road block. 

McBurrows and Smith each went 3-for-4, Smith tripled, Morris doubled, Denton brought in three and Kirsten McRae threw 6 2/3 of two-hit softball over a two-day stretch (and she only needed 55 pitches) to send the Highlanders back to Clermont for the second consecutive season. 


Wednesday’s start time was moved to 10:00 a.m. with possible inclement weather coming later in the afternoon. The Highlanders are the No. 1 seed in the 4A State Tournament, and face a Lemon Bay (Englewood) team that enters at 17-7 after pulling a 1-0, 10-inning win over Robinson on Saturday.

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