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Pace softball wins region semifinals thanks to Heavener's no-hitter, Pierce's big home run

Bill Vilona
Special to the News Journal

Her decorated prep career has led Pace senior star pitcher Jayden Heavener into making the extraordinary look routine.

She did it again Tuesday night on a state playoff stage.

Heavener tossed another no-hitter, striking out 18 and facing just three batters above the minimum in seven innings as the Patriots overwhelmed Niceville 9-0 in the Region 1-6A semifinal game at Pace.

Only one Niceville batter hit a Heavener pitch out of the infield.

When Heavener recorded the final out of a slow grounder, there was little celebration as the Patriots exited the field and moved a step closer to a third consecutive state final four trip. They will face Hagerty, a school located in Oviedo, near Orlando, for a second straight year in the region title game at Pace on Friday night.

The Patriots (25-2) are ranked No. 7 in the nation by MaxPreps among all high school softball teams.

ֱWeֱre just trying to stay humble throughout the whole thing and just keep our heads screwed on the right way, and just keep pushing through each game, each out,ֱ said Heavener, a future LSU player, who has risen into national acclaim as she prepares for high school graduation. ֱI feel like this year we still have fun and yet not get too far out of place.ֱ

Itֱs like her teammates have seen this script many times before, which they have. So many times, in fact, that Heavenerֱs no-hitters have reached a total number no one can determine.

ֱOh gosh, I have no clue,ֱ Heavener said, laughing. ֱI donֱt keep up with kind of stuff.ֱ

But her stuff from the pitching circle is a sight to behold. Heavener ֱ who committed to LSU a school as a sophomore ֱ worked out of three early innings where a baserunner reached on a walk or hit batter and advanced into scoring position.

Each time, she ended the inning with a strikeout. Just your regular kind of 18-strikeout, playoff no hitter against a solid like team like Niceville (18-9), which had won nine consecutive games, including a 8-2 win against Winter Springs in last weekֱs regional quarterfinals.

ֱI guess itֱs kind of easy to get used to that ... with Jayden on the mound ֱ that kind of no-hitter, high strikeout kind of game, but itֱs easy to forget itֱs big,ֱ said Pace coach Lexi Alexander, laughing.

The game was scoreless into the bottom of the fourth inning.

Thatֱs when sophomore left fielder Kamryn Pierce had the gameֱs biggest hit.

On a 3-2 pitch, after just missing a high fast ball, Pierce went the opposite way with a pitch on the outside corner and blasted it over the right field wall for a three-run homer that opened a 4-0 lead. Pace had scored the gameֱs first run a batter earlier when Britt Kettlerֱs sacrifice fly scored Abigail McLean.

ֱI think we all knew that something was going to come ֱ and sometimes when weֱre going zero, zero, zero, there is always someone who breaks the ice,ֱ Pierce said. ֱI just didnֱt expect it to me. Hearing my teammates encourage me helps me get out of my head.ֱ

From that point, the Patriots tacked on four more runs in the fifth inning when batting around a second time.

Here are three additional takeaways from the game.

Spotlight comfort

Pace High School's ace pitcher, Jayden Heavener (No. 00), delivered the heat during Tuesday's semifinal game against Niceville.

From the time she was a freshman, the area softball community knew about the hard-throwing, well-locating ability of Jayden Heavener.

It has spread into national recognition and awards.

Heavener said she has tried to stay grounded and focused on team success.

ֱI feel like the pressure was different my freshman and sophomore years,ֱ she said. ֱIt was all pretty new to me. I was told it was going to be something different.

ֱJunior and senior year Iֱve just tried to stay humble, having fun with the girls and not get too in my head, and know I have a good team behind me.

ֱ(Tuesdayֱs game) wasnֱt my best, but it was not bad at all. It was really good for me. Obviously, as the pitcher, I am Iֱm going to be hard on myself, but I think I improved since our last game. I was a little shaky, but this time I was pretty good.ֱ

Pierce was a middle-schooler when Heavener first starting wowing in high school.

ֱShe carries herself very well,ֱ Pierce said. ֱI just love watching her pitch.ֱ

Long ball surprise

Niceville catcher Kam Neely (No. 21) tags Pace's Emma Hicks (No. 10) out at home plate during Tuesday's semifinal games

Pierce had not hit a home run this season. And then she hit a memorable one.

With two runners on, she worked a 3-0 count in the fourth inning against Nicevilleֱs Chloe Bailey, who just entered to replace starter Emma Sikes. Pierce then took a strike and swung through the next pitch for a full count.

ֱI was just telling myself to stay through the ball and then I heard my teammates behind me and it was really encouraging,ֱ Pierce said. ֱI was telling myself to not think, just stay through it and itֱs going to be fine.

ֱAt first, I thought (when ball was struck), oh I popped out, and then I saw it in the air and I was like, 'Oh, yeah, thatֱs out,'ֱ she said, laughing. ֱIt feels like you are on top of the world. Every time I have ever hit a home run, Iֱm overly excited.ֱ

That was huge since Niceville centerfielder Emma Kowal had just made a sensational throw to the plate an inning earlier to get out Lonnie Gonzalez as the Pace catcher tagged up on fly out.

ֱI knew we would come up with more than enough runs toward the end of the game, I just didnֱt know when,ֱ Heavener said. ֱI am very proud of (Pierce), especially being a sophomore and taking up that role this year.ֱ

What's next?

Pace knows it has a formidable foe heading to town for Fridayֱs regional title game.

Hagerty (23-5) beat Tate 15-0 in the first round of region playoffs, then run-ruled Oakleaf, located near Jacksonville, in an 11-0 victory Tuesday night.

Hagerty battled Pace well a year ago, before the Patriots pulled away. The game will be at 7 p.m. at Pace. The winner goes to the state final four next week in Clermont, near Orlando.

ֱWeֱre excited. We are trying to push one inning at a time,ֱ Heavener said. ֱI know itֱs going to be a tough game with Hagerty. We played them last year and we did win on a run rule, but who knows, weֱve got to play this game (Friday) like that didnֱt happen.ֱ

Bill Vilonaֱis a retired Pensacola News Journal sports columnist and now senior writer for Pensacola Blue Wahoos. He can be reached atֱbvilona@bluewahoos.com