They’re ready: Clay, Middleburg take the field in softball state final four

Middleburg softball practices before their trip to the state final four. (Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Thursday is a big day for Clay County high school softball as both Clay High and Middleburg High School will play in separate state final four games.

Clay plays in the 4A state semifinals against Deltona at 10 a.m. in Clermont. Clay is a bit of a surprise team to make the final four. The Blue Devils lost three in a row at the end of the regular season and four of their last six. But they’ve put it all together in the playoffs, including in a 10-inning, 1-0 win over West Florida. Thursday’s game is a chance for Clay to show that it belongs after its stunning run as a No. 8 seed to the state semis.

Both games can be purchased and streamed on the NFHS Network. Cost is $10.99.

“We had times where we thought we were a final four team, and we had other times where we thought this might not be a final four team,” said Clay head coach Matt Lewis. “We’re ecstatic that we’re in the final four and looking to see what we can do.”

Clay’s late-season surge has given the team the opportunity to prove that it’s not how you start, but how you finish. If they can win two more games, nobody will remember the stumbles. It will be all about the end result.

“I think it’s made us feel like we need to say something,” said Clay pitcher/outfielder Gabrielle Ellis. “We belong here. We deserve to be here.”

They’ll be able to speak with their bats and gloves on Thursday morning.

Then at 4 p.m., Middleburg plays in the 5A final four against Naples. It’s a pretty remarkable story. Middleburg started the season 11-11. Then, something happened. Since an April 29 win over Nease, the Broncos haven’t lost. They showed their resilience in their regional finals win over Tallahassee Lincoln in 13 innings.

This is a team that believes that it can win the state title. Now, they just have to approach things the right way and not let the pressure become a factor.

“The biggest thing is to have fun and have passion throughout the game and love being there in the moment together and try to extend what we have going on here and play as long as we can together,” said Middleburg head coach Ashley Houston, who led Trinity Christian to the state semifinals in 2017 for her first final four appearance as a head coach.

At this time of year, pitching can make the difference for a softball team. Middleburg’s Mallory Forrester has been the ace. In the 13-inning regional final win over Lincoln, Forrester struck out 19 batters. If she can keep up that production, the Broncos could be on to the state championship game.

“I think we really have something special this year,” Forrester said. “I think with all of the girls around here combined, it’s something really special.”