Tempo softball moves forward after Heavener’s no-hitter, Pierce’s home run

Her distinguished prep career has led Pace senior star thrower Jayden Heavener to create the extraordinary look routine.

She did it again Tuesday night during a state playoff bracket.

Heavener threw 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 at Pace.

Only one Niceville batter hit a Heavener pitch from the infield.

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

The Patriots (25-2) are ranked seventh in the nation among all high school softball teams, according to MaxPreps.

“We’re just trying to stay humble throughout the whole thing and just keep our heads on the right level, and just keep going through every game, every out,” said Heavener, a future LSU player who has achieved national fame . as she prepares to graduate from high school. “I feel like we’re still having fun this year and not going too far out of line.”

It’s as if her teammates have seen this script many times before, and they have. So many times, in fact, that Heavener’s no-hitters have reached a total number that no one can determine.

“Oh god, I have no idea,” Heavener said, laughing. “I don’t keep track of things like that.”

But her stuff from the pitching circle is a sight to behold. Heavener – who committed to LSU as a sophomore – worked off three early innings in which a runner reached base on a walk or hit batter and advanced to scoring position.

Each time, she ended the inning with a strikeout. Just a normal 18-strikeout, playoff no hitter against a solid team like Niceville (18-9), which had won nine straight games, including an 8-2 victory against Winter Springs in last week’s regional quarterfinals.

“I think it’s kind of easy to get used to that … with Jayden on the mound … that kind of no-hitter game with high strikeouts, but it’s easy to forget that it’s big,” Pace coach Lexi Alexander said with a laugh . .

The game remained scoreless until the bottom of the fourth inning.

That’s when sophomore left fielder Kamryn Pierce had the biggest hit of the game.

On a 3-2 pitch, after just missing a high fastball, Pierce went the opposite direction with a pitch to the outside corner and blasted it over the right field wall for a three-run homer that opened a 4-0 lead. Pace had earlier scored the game’s first run when Britt Kettler’s sacrifice fly scored Abigail McLean.

“I think we all knew something was going to happen … and sometimes when we go zero, zero, zero, there’s always someone to break the ice,” Pierce said. “I just didn’t expect it from me. When I hear my teammates cheering me on, it gets me out of my head.”

From there, the Patriots scored four more runs in the fifth inning as they went around for the second time.

Here are three additional tips from the game.

Comfort in the spotlight

From the time she was a freshman, the area softball community knew about Jayden Heavener’s hard-throwing and good locating ability.

It has spread in 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 quite new to me. I was told it would be something different.

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

“(Tuesday’s match) wasn’t my best, but not bad at all. It was really good for me. Obviously as a pitcher I’m going to be hard on myself, but I think I’ve gotten better since our last game. I was a little shaky, but this time I was pretty good.

Pierce was a high school student when Heavener first started wowing in high school.

“She’s very well behaved,” Pierce said. “I just enjoy watching her pitch.”

Long ball surprise

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

With two runners on, she made it 3-0 in the fourth inning against Niceville’s Chloe Bailey, who just reached base in relief of starter Emma Sikes. Pierce then took a swing and swung a full count through the next pitch.

“I told myself to stay through the ball, but then I heard my teammates behind me and that was really encouraging,” Pierce said. “I told myself not to think, just stick with it and you’ll be fine.

“At first I thought (when the ball was hit), oh I jumped out, and then I saw it in the air and I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s out,’” she said, laughing. “It feels like you’re on top of the world. Every time I’ve ever hit a home run, I’ve been overly excited.

That was huge because Niceville centerfielder Emma Kowal had just made a sensational throw to the plate to eliminate Lonnie Gonzalez an inning earlier when the Pace catcher was tagged on a flyout.

“I knew we would come up with more than enough runs by the end of the game, I just didn’t know when,” Heavener said. “I’m very proud of (Pierce), especially being a sophomore and taking on this role this year.”

What’s next?

Pace knows a formidable foe is heading to town for Friday’s regional title match.

Hagerty (23-5) defeated Tate 15-0 in the first round of the regional playoffs before beating Oakleaf, located near Jacksonville, 11-0 on Tuesday night.

Hagerty fought well against Pace a year ago before the Patriots pulled away. The match will take place at Pace at 7 p.m. The winner will advance to the state final four next week in Clermont, near Orlando.

“Were excited. We’re trying to push one inning at a time,” Heavener said. “I know it’s going to be a tough game with Hagerty. We played them last year and we won on a run rule, but who knows we will play this match (Friday) as if that didn’t happen.’

Bill Vilona is a retired sports columnist for the Pensacola News Journal and now a senior writer for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. He can be reached at [email protected]