By Matt Mauney | Staff Writer
When you think of Plant City, a couple things generally come to mind.
Strawberries, of course, usually top the list, along with the railroad and the history behind the town.
As a sports fanatic, the city’s rich high school football history also stands out.
But recently, a new trend is drawing attention, and it doesn’t occur in a strawberry patch or on the gridiron: softball.
In addition to competitive local high school programs, former local softball standouts are doing big things in the college ranks.
Plant City High is responsible for producing two of the biggest “where are they now” stories recently.
One, catcher Kendall Dawson, just wrapped up her college playing career in ultimate fashion, by winning the NCAA Division I national championship while starting 53 games for the University of Alabama. Dawson was a three-sport standout at Plant City (softball, soccer and volleyball) and was a staple behind the plate this season for the Crimson Tide. She caught nine runners stealing this season and recorded a team-high 414 putouts, along with just seven passed balls.
The other former Plant City standout making waves is just beginning what looks to be a memorable college career. Mackenzie Audas was a integral part in the University of Central Florida’s historic NCAA Regional appearance this season. Audas, a freshman right-hander, led the top ranked pitching staff in Conference USA with a 1.28 ERA, while starting 33 games for the Knights and compiling a 21-12 record with a team-high 279 strikeouts.
Her biggest performance of the year came April 11, against No. 3 ranked Florida. She allowed no runs on just two singles to the nationally-ranked Gators, who came into the contest in the top 15 of every major offensive statistical category. Audas also had memorable moments May 1, when she threw a no-hitter against Bethune-Cookman and April 15, when she led her team to a 1-0 crucial C-USA win against University of Alabama-Birmingham, tossing eight strong innings and allowing just one hit with 10 strikeouts. For her stellar freshman campaign, Audas was named C-USA Co-Pitcher of the Year and Freshman and the Year, along with being named to the first team C-USA and second team on the Louisville Slugger/National Fastpitch Association All-Mideast Region team.
It’s not just local individuals gaining headlines, either. The Durant High softball team is coming off its first state championship, while Plant City High finished as district runners-up to Durant with a 17-6 record and finished in the top 10 in the state rankings, according to MaxPreps.com.
The youngest program in the area, Strawberry Crest, also is quickly establishing itself as a regional power. The Lady Chargers finished 18-6 in their third season of play and held the No. 1 seed in the district before getting upset in the first round of the district tournament to Leto.
The talent in Plant City transcends to the hardball game as well, as one of the best young baseball players in the area is a girl — 15-year-old Chelsea Baker — who has been featured on ESPN twice as one of the most dominating Little League pitchers in the country, utilizing her rare knuckleball (learned from the late, great Joe Niekro) to her advantage. Baker also plays softball but plans on trying out for the Durant High baseball team next spring.
It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise of the amount of success Plant City has had when it comes to softball. After all, the city is the home to the International Softball Federation, the governing body of softball internationally as recognized by the International Olympic Committee and SportAccord (formerly the General Association of International Sports Federations). Soon, the ISF headquarters off Park Road will be home to the Softball Hall of Fame.
There is no doubt that Plant City will be always synonymous with strawberries, but who knows? Soon our city may also be known as the softball capital of the world.
Contact Matt Mauney at email@example.com.