CLEARWATER — Countryside put itself back atop the Class 7A District 9 standings with a solid 4-1 victory Thursday afternoon over rival East Lake.
Playing a large role in the win was Stella Preston shutting down the Eagles' bats in relief of starter Alyssa Queen. The sophomore earned the long 3 2/3-inning save after entering a 2-1 ballgame with two on and one out in the fourth.
“I just have to relax and breathe out there,” Preston said of the situation. “If I get under pressure I just try and take a step back and walk around.”
She responded to the moment by striking out Nicci Palumbo and Haley Michael, then surrendering just two walks and a single the rest of the way.
East Lake struck first Thursday, getting an RBI single from Michael in the second, but couldn't come up with the big hits thereafter.
“We had every opportunity, we had runners on, and [Countryside] did a better job of executing,” East Lake coach Kristie Delk said. “They were better clutch hitters than we were.”
The Cougars (14-4, 7-2) didn't trail for long, responding to East Lake's run in the home half of the second. Brooke Sharpe's one-out double knocked in Brittany Creamer, who also doubled, to tie the game at 1-1. Countryside went up for good when an error allowed Emily Hollenbeck to race home.
The lead expanded to 4-1 in the fifth when Keeley Mayers lifted an RBI double to dead center to score Sommer Pollard. Makensie Griffin squeezed home the fourth-and-final run after Mayers advanced to third on a passed ball.
Not helping the cause for East Lake (10-6, 6-2) was the early departure of center fielder and leadoff hitter Aliyah Andrews. The speedy sophomore tweaked a lingering hamstring injury within the first two innings and did not return.
“She was pulling up a little bit and we just decided we're not going to risk it,” Delk said of Andrews. “She's a game-changer and we need her, so we're just going to rest her and when she's ready to go, she'll be back.”
East Lake's Maddie Bertisch turned in the day's only multi-hit performance, accounting for two of the Eagles' five total hits.
Countryside likely locked up the District 7A-9 top seed with the win. The Cougars' final league game is April 1 against last-place Clearwater.
East Lake is in sole possession of second place with two district games remaining. The Eagles have critical consecutive home dates against Northeast and Seminole on April 3 and 4, respectively.
Haley Michael – 2-for-3, 1 RBI, 1 R, 1 HR
Diana Rayder – L, 6.0 IP, 4 R, 3 ER, 5 H, 5 K, 4 BB, 1 HBP – 0-for-1, 2 BB
Maddie Bertisch – 2-for-3, 1 R
Stella Preston – Save, 3.2 IP, 0 R, 1 H, 4 K, 0 BB
Keeley Mayers – 1-for-3, 1 RBI, 1 R, 1 2B
Brooke Sharpe – 1-for-3, 1 RBI, 1 2B