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West Orange Times & Observer Thursday, Apr. 7, 2016 3 years ago

Softball: Knights craft identity under new coach

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Ahead of the Class 8A, District 3 Tournament, Ocoee softball coaches Brian Vail and Kristen Stewart hope to keep their team loose and enthusiastic.
by: Steven Ryzewski Senior Sports Editor

OCOEE In his first year as the head coach for the Ocoee softball program, Brian Vail and assistant coach Kristen Stewart had a few goals in mind for getting the program headed in the right direction.

The Knights, after all, have had three different head coaches in four years.

Chief among those goals was building a sense of morale and pride in the program. Another important item was getting the girls to think in terms of the team and less on an individual basis.

Perhaps most importantly, though, was creating an atmosphere where Ocoee High softball players are having fun — win or lose.

“I don’t ever want them to go into a game stressed out,” Vail said as his team held a light-hearted scrimmage March 31.

Vail, whose daughter Abigail is a sophomore with the team, sees a lot of potential with the team he took over. Ocoee (8-11) has just two seniors and all of the girls on the varsity team are playing travel ball in the summer. When the Knights held tryouts, the two coaches were pleasantly surprised with how many girls tried out for the program — another encouraging sign.

So, even though Ocoee is three games under .500 at press time, there is an upbeat demeanor in the Knights’ dugout.

“The record does not reflect the way that this team has played,” Vail said. “We’re in a really hard district. To go to Lake Minneola and to go to East Ridge and take wins out of there just shows where this team is headed.”

Ocoee is saddled in a four-team district that includes last year’s Class 6A state champion, Ocala’s Forest Hight, and another playoff team from 2015 in Lake Minneola. Despite long odds, the Knights secured momentum-building district wins against East Ridge and Lake Minneola and also were encouraged by a 5-4 loss to powerhouse neighbor West Orange.

Pitcher Taylor Richards has improved dramatically on the mound and has a 3.397 ERA and four wins over 68 innings of work.

At the plate, the trio of Grace Spitulski (.485 average, 15 RBI, two homer runs), Kylie Stewart (.429 average, 15 RBI, eight doubles) and Courtney Stewart (.340 average, 14 RBI) have swung the biggest sticks, while Jada Cruz and Mallory Greenwood have found their way on base and  to home plate the most often with each have scored 17 runs.

At 2-4 in the district, Ocoee will be the fourth seed in next week’s district tournament and will play top-seeded Forest — the only district opponent it did not beat — in the semifinals. Although the odds aren’t necessarily in the Knights’ favor, Vail doesn’t mind his girls playing the role of the underdog and believes if they play their best ball, they could surprise some people.

“We’ll be ready for (Forest),” Vail said. “We know what to expect with them and we’ll practice hard and be ready for that game.”

Contact Steven Ryzewski at [email protected].

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