WAUCHULA - Hardee overcame a three-run deficit to beat Sebring by a score of 12-5 in the first round of the Class 5A-District 11 softball tournament on Tuesday night.
"Getting up by three runs so quickly was good, but I think it made us come out a little flat on defense," Blue Streaks coach Joe Sinness said. "I think we were good, but it took some wind out of our sails."
In the early going, though, it appeared as if Sebring would pull the upset. The Streaks scored three runs in the first inning, punctuated by Alison Hoffner's solo home run.
Following consecutive singles from Sebring's Amber Hicks and Chelsea Bassett, Mattie Coe plated both runners with a booming double to center field.
But the Streaks defense failed to hold Hardee in the bottom of the inning. The Wildcats scored four runs on the strength of Kim Derringer's two-run double to take the lead.
The Wildcats added three runs in the second inning to go up 7-3. Hannah Carlton blasted a solo home run and back-to-back RBI doubles from Kendall Gough and Makayla Deuberry helped Hardee add to Sebring's defensive woes.
Neither team scored in the third and fourth innings, as Hardee's Alex Ullrich settled into a groove on the mound. Despite a few mistakes early, Ullrich cruised through the final six innings, scattering four hits and fanning three batters.
But Sebring managed a run in the fifth when Kiana Antone scampered home from second base after a Hardee error.
But the Wildcats accounted for their mistake, tacking on two more runs in the bottom of the inning to balloon their lead to 9-4.
Hardee punished Sebring for three more runs in the bottom of the inning, stretching the deficit to eight runs.
Antone belted a double in the top of the seventh to give Sebring a glimmer of hope for a comeback. A wild pitch from Ullrich let Antone score, but she calmed herself on the mound and retired the Streaks next two hitters with ease to clinch the victory.
The Wildcats' victory completed a 3-0 sweep of the Streaks this season.
"Our bats came alive tonight, but we couldn't get anything going through the middle innings," Sinness said. "And unfortunately, the ball didn't bounce our way tonight. Not to take anything from Hardee, they're a good team and they played us strong, but we've got to make plays when we have the opportunity."
Despite a disappointing end to the season, Sinness has high hopes about next year.
"We lose five girls who all started at one point during the season, but we bring back seven juniors," he said. "And I've told them, they've got big shoes to fill."
Among the positions Sinness needs filled are right field, catcher, short stop, and possibly third base.
But the Streaks skipper also has faith that some players from the junior varsity squad will be ready to step in.
"They got a pretty good taste of what it's like to play," he said. "They played about 20 games and finished over .500 this year. They're young and inexperienced still, but they're coming along."
Sinness added that the few girls he has playing travel ball over the summer will have a positive impact on the 2015 season.
"We've got a lot of girls busy with a lot of different things over the summer," he said. "We know they're busy. But the ones who play travel ball, it really helps kids improve."