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Plant’s magic continues, Luciani walks off Wellington to advance to title game

Updated: Dec 15, 2023


Plant's Lauren Luciani is mobbed by teammates after hitting the game-winning RBI single to send the Panthers to their first state championship game since 2000.

CLERMONT — There’s no better way to script what happened on Friday night at Legends Way Ballfields.


There’s no better way to script the run that the Plant softball team has been on.


And while it’s been documented over and over again, the Panthers continue to find ways to win in the most miraculous, unbelievable ways possible.


For the second time this postseason, Lauren Luciani pulled her team from the clutches of defeat. This time, it sent the Panthers to just their third-ever state championship game and first since 2000.


“Again, like my other big game, I was 0-for-3 going in there and all I’m thinking – I’m choked up, she’s throwing high, I’m sinking into my legs a little more, so I don’t think to go after the high balls. I’m just swinging. I’m just protecting. I don’t care what it was at that point. I beat it hard into the ground, it got over her head,” she said.


Luciani’s base hit that chopped its way into center field scored Abby Lucas and walked off Wellington, 2-1, in eight innings at the FHSAA Class 7A State Semifinals.


“Twice. Twice,” said Plant head coach Lauren Castellvi-Donahue. “I can’t even explain it. I get choked up every single time I talk about these girls. I knew – like the last time she did it – something big was about to happen for us right there. She’s just a reliable kid. She steps in the box and she’s about to do some damage. It’s amazing. It’s amazing.”


For a minute, it looked like Plant’s dream season was coming to a disappointing finale in Clermont. The Panthers went back to the game plan that worked so well in the regional final – start Addison Swink, then bring in Cassidy Masters to close.


It just got a little more difficult when Swink was called for several illegal pitches, one of which helped Wellington get on the board in the first. A hit by pitch, a stolen base and an RBI groundout gave the Wolverines a 1-0 lead.


“She was stepping on the rubber with her hands apart, got the sign and then she would immediately go,” Castellvi-Donahue said. “He wanted them separated for a second, get the sign and then go.”


The illegal pitch conversation has been a highly-debated topic that has popped up seemingly out of nowhere in this state tournament. In the earlier state semifinal, Spanish River’s starting pitcher was called for nearly 20 illegal pitches. Many’s quarrels with calling it in the state tournament is that the rule hasn’t been enforced all season, so pitchers have no time to adjust in one of the most pressure-packed games of the season.


“He apologized to me for all of the umpires in our journey here, he said, ‘I’m sorry that you guys have been getting away with it for so long.’ I said, ‘in my five years here, it’s never happened. Ever,’” Castellvi-Donahue added.


While the Plant faithful behind home plate couldn’t believe it, Swink continued to work.

“Nothing affects Addy,” Castellvi-Donahue said.


Plant put runners on in the fourth and fifth and couldn’t crack the armor of Wellington starting pitcher Jordan White.


Until Gracie Ciccarello doubled in the sixth.


And the play of the game came in the next at-bat when Graci Quinlan popped out in foul territory just past first base. Ciccarello tagged from second to third and now the Panthers had a runner 60 feet away with two outs.


“Insane,” said third baseman Teagan Riley.


And Plant’s side of the stands erupted into insanity when Riley singled to center and Ciccarello sprinted in from home. The Panthers tied it at 1-1.


“My first two at-bats, the first one I struck out and second one, hit a changeup, wasn’t what I planned. Third one, I knew I had to choke up, same pitch the third time and I knew I had to get Gracie in,” she said.


Masters entered in the fifth and fully showed her full embrace of the ‘closer’ role that’s been so successful. She kept Wellington off-balance and off the scoreboard. The junior needed just four pitches to retire the Wolverines in the eighth.


Meanwhile, Wellington shockingly pulled White and brought in Victoria Payne in the seventh. A game-changing decision, considering the Panthers were struggling heavily against White’s long delivery.


“I was [shocked],” Luciani said. “She’s a really good pitcher and she’s going to do great things if she’s committed. She had us beat in the beginning. Some people snuck in some hits, but I was shocked, too. You know, they took a chance and that’s what happens.”


In the eighth, those 2-3-4 batters – Lucas, Ciccarello and Quinlan – returned. If something was going to happen, it would be fitting for the middle of the order, that’s been so hot since March, to end it.


Lucas walked.


Quinlan singled through the 5-6 hole with one out.


Then with two outs and runners on second and third, Luciani stepped in.


The rest goes down in history. 


A chopper up the middle.


Lucas scored from third.


Plant had won the softball game. Luciani burst into tears as she was embraced by her teammates that poured out of the dugout. 


In a season, in a career that has been so improbable, what Plant previously thought was impossible had happened.


“Plant’s in the state championship,” Luciani said.


The Panthers will face Spanish River, which pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent Florida softball history with a wacky, 13-9, eight-inning win over nationally ranked Lake Brantley. The Sharks came in as a seven-seed in their region and have been on a Cinderella-like run. First pitch is scheduled for 3 p.m. and will be the final game of the 2023 FHSAA softball season.

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