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Three Things: Inspiration Academy downs new-look Lakewood Ranch

Inspiration Academy LF Alexis McInerney leads off second base in Monday's preseason game against Lakewood Ranch.

BRADENTON – Inspiration Academy pitcher Elle Hildreth struck out seven and McKenna Cassidy polished off a six-out save by stranding the tying run at first to push the Lions past Lakewood Ranch, 4-3 on Monday night at Palma Sola Park.

 

After months of anticipation, preseason softball didn’t disappoint between a pair of Manatee County foes that got their first opportunity to see what the 2024 versions of their squads will look like on the clay.

 

Hildreth’s RBI single to right in the fourth gave IA the insurance it needed, overcoming a sixth-inning error that Lakewood Ranch used to trim the lead at 4-3.

 

Here’s three things from the exhibition:


What we know – Inspiration Academy’s core rivals a lot of large-class programs


More of the general community got a chance to see what the Lions had at the Bartow Home of Champions and Lady ‘Canes Spring Classic tournaments last season, and it was probably a surprise. IA was able to boast its first softball Division I prospect when Danika Best committed to Iowa State ahead of her junior season, then swiftly added a few more this offseason. Jade Carnahan made her verbal pledge to Central Arkansas two months ago, and Avery Bouquin followed it up with a UNC Greensboro commitment to end January.

 

Three Division I prospects are hard to come by for programs quadruple the size of IA and they might not be done adding to the total, considering Hildreth could be on her way there soon. The top four batters of the Lions lineup – Alexis McInerney, Bouquin, Hildreth and Best – went a combined 9-for-14 and accounted for all their runs in the win.

 

Perhaps it’s the youth of their talent, the youth of the program that’s kept the Lions’ core under the radar.

 

“We’ve always been young,” Hildreth said. “This is the first season that we actually have a senior.”

 

Regardless, Inspiration Academy has a lot to like with the talent in its dugout right now.


What we think – Lakewood Ranch is going to figure it out, rather quickly


In a sense, it feels like the Mustangs have hit the reset button. New coaching staff – albeit headlined by softball alumni Taylor Gould and Logan Newton – with a young roster and practically brand-new pitching staff after Ella Dodge decided to enroll at Tennessee a semester early.

 

Amid all of that, it would not be shocking to see Lakewood Ranch find a way to win its district and mess up someone’s May with how wide-open Class 7A-Region 2 is. Starting pitcher Lexi Meneely allowed nine hits but got charged with just a lone earned run in a complete game effort. Inspiration Academy looked poised to break things open in the sixth on three consecutive one-out hits before the junior rolled up two consecutive ground balls to allow the Mustangs an opportunity to rally in the seventh. Overall, an encouraging performance.

 

Lakewood Ranch’s offense will go as Grace Shaw-Rockey does, evident on Monday. The North Florida signee had two hits, including a double. Meneely helped at the plate with a two-run single and catcher Corin Soria scored on the play to help the Mustangs’ attempt at a middle-inning rally.

 

“We respect the crap out of that team,” Inspiration Academy head coach Anne Gerwitz said. “Battling injuries and everything they’re going through – they’re a good ballclub. It means a lot that we get this opportunity to be on the field with them and to compete.”


What we’re interested to see – Alexis McInerney’s development as a slapper


A relatively unknown name in the area, this Lions sophomore has the opportunity to be a major part of what her side does offensively. McInerney has transitioned from a swing-away batter into a lefty slapper, which will greatly facilitate her best tool – her speed.

 

Tremendous plate discipline showed as she posted 17 walks to boost a .228 batting average into a .405 on-base percentage, and while she stole just a single bag last season, expect that number to balloon in 2024. In the win, McInerney swiped second and scored twice off three hits. The first two were excellent push bunts to the left side, then her fourth inning knock came on taking advantage of what the defense showed her. With the corners in, McInerney slapped one to short and her speed earned her a single after a double clutch allowed her the extra second she needed.

 

“When it comes to work ethic, there’s not a lot of people that are going to match her. In that offseason, she saw she had a tool with her speed, and she worked her butt off teaching herself how to slap and it’s amazing to watch her come out here and play it out,” Gerwitz said. “She wanted another way to put pressure on the other team. She took the initiative to say, ‘hey, I want to slap’ and she put in the work day after day to perfect her craft. It’s really cool to see her come out here and play her game.”

 

The Lions and Mustangs will meet on Wednesday as a final preseason tune-up before the regular season begins for both teams next Tuesday. Inspiration Academy opens with Sarasota at home, while Lakewood Ranch will host Manatee.

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