Ridaught: All area final?

Senior catcher Peyton Hatcher (left) and senior pitcher Bria Hinkle are two big reasons why the Dixie County (Cross City) softball team is back in the Final Four. The Bears will play Liberty County at 1:30 p.m. in the Class 1A state semifinals in Clermont.
Senior catcher Peyton Hatcher (left) and senior pitcher Bria Hinkle are two big reasons why the Dixie County (Cross City) softball team advanced to consecutive Class 1A state semifinals.
Photo by C.J. Gish

Dixie County (Cross City) softball coach Greg Wimberley was right. 

After his team’s win at Williston last Tuesday in the Class 1A-Region 4 Final, which sent the Bears to their second straight state semifinal, he said, “All year long everybody’s talked about Williston, Williston, Williston.”

But with good reason.

The Red Devils were ranked No. 1 in Class 1A and finished the season with 26 victories.

But they also suffered three defeats, all to the Bears (21-5).

“Fort White, we beat them two times last year,” Wimberley said. “When it mattered, they beat us (7-5 in last year’s state semifinals). We have to win the game that matters, and when the game matters is in the postseason, and that’s where we’re at and they just won it.”

Now it’s on to the final four as the No. 2 seed Bears will play No. 3 seed Liberty County (Bristol) at 1:30 p.m. at Legends Way Ball Fields in Clermont.

Wimberley said the experience of advancing last year, and losing in the state semifinals, will benefit his team as they prepare for the Bulldogs (19-8), which returned the majority of its players from last year’s final four team.

“I think it’s going to help a lot, but I think where it’s going to help the most is letting us know we’ve got to kill the lull time that we had last year,” Wimberley said after Tuesday’s win. “We can’t have that this year. We can’t have the hoopla celebration before we go there because it doesn’t matter and I think we learned that last year. The hoopla doesn’t matter. If you want hoopla bring it after we go down there if we come back with a trophy, then get all the hoopla you want.”

Last year was their first trip, now it’s a business trip.

His team is focused on winning it all this time.

Photo by C.J. Gish Branford pitcher Laila Arnold 16-2 with a 1.28 ERA and has 234 strikeouts and only 51 walks in 147.2 innings pitched this season.

Dixie County has won 10 in a row since losing at home, 2-1, in eight innings on April 7 against Branford, which is playing No. 4 seed Jay (16-11) in the other state semifinal at 11 a.m.

If the Bears and the Buccaneers both advance, it would be the first All Area final in softball since Union County (Lake Butler) defeated Chiefland, 5-1, to win the Class 1A state title, its first in program history, in 2017.

The state championship game is at 4 p.m. on Tuesday.

But first standing in the way of Dixie County’s first state championship game appearance on Monday afternoon is Liberty County, which is seeking its first state title since winning the 1A championship in 2013.

Head coach Jennifer Sewell is seeking her second state title this school year after leading Liberty County (28-2) to the 1A state volleyball title.

Several members of that team are on the softball team, including freshman Cha’miya Williams, who is second on the team in batting average (.465) and on base percentage (.514), and she leads the team with 32 stolen bases.

Catcher Elizabeth “Sister” Arnold, who signed to play at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, leads the team with a .506 average and a .575 OBP.

The Bulldogs have played one of the toughest schedules in 1A and haven’t lost to a 1A team this season. They are batting .345 as a team.

Junior Kallan Mercer leads the team in the circle with a 1.82 earned run average. She is 11-2 this season with 62 strikeouts and 29 walks in 88.2 innings pitched.

Dixie County is batting .342 as a team thanks to the 1-2 punch of senior catcher Peyton Hatcher (.521, .602 OBP, 24 RBI, 16 doubles), a Florida Gateway College signee, and senior pitcher Bria Hinkle (.431, .598 OBP, 20-4, 1.36 ERA, 186K, 20 BB, 144 IP).

Senior Shylee Brown (.423, 11 doubles) is next, followed by senior Gracie McKinnon (.402, 15 RBI).

Four of the Bears’ five losses this season have been by one run.

Three of the four state semifinalists were in Clermont last year – Dixie County, Jay, and Liberty County.

Branford (24-4) was absent from last year’s last semifinals. However, the Buccaneers are making their second appearance in the past three years. They lost 3-2 to eventual state champion Trenton in the 2021 1A state semifinals.

Branford advanced to this year’s Final Four with a 2-0 win against Aucilla Christian (Monticello) in the 1A-Region 3 Final.

The Bucs only have one senior and have been led by their super sophomores.

Sophomore Laila Arnold pitched a one-hitter with only two walks and 14 strikeouts. She is 16-2 with a 1.28 ERA and has 234 strikeouts and only 51 walks in 147.2 innings pitched.

As a team, the Bucs are batting .293 with 43 doubles and nine home runs.

Sophomores Jesse Frierson (.447, 38 hits, 22 RBI) and Cloey Criggall (.340, 36 stolen bases) lead the team in hitting and stolen bases, while sophomore Madyson Sikes (.319) leads the team with 31 RBI and 16 doubles.

Sophomore catcher Morgan Brennan (.341) has the team’s highest fielding percentage of .996 (one error all season) with the most putouts (264) and chances (280).

Their opponent is batting .307.

The Royals are led by junior Ella Nelson (.464, 39 H, 22 RBI, 6 HRs) and senior Caitlyn Gavin (.393, 33 H, 31 RBI, 11 doubles).

Senior Jenna Toups leads the team in the circle with a 10-5 record and a 1.69 ERA. She has 88 strikeouts with 36 walks in 124 innings pitched.

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Hayden Gustavson
Photo by C.J. Gish Columbia catcher Hayden Gustavson leads the Tigers with a .429 batting average, 36 hits and 31 RBI this season.


Columbia (Lake City) is back in the Final Four for the second straight year.

They defeated Clay (Green Cove Springs), 7-1, in the Class 5A-Region 1 Final last Tuesday, which included a grand slam by sophomore Ayden Phillips in the final inning.

Josh Fernald (9-0, 0.16 ERA), who hit a walk-off grand slam to beat Lincoln (Tallahassee) in the regional semifinals, hit a 2-run triple and tossed a complete game 4-hitter on the mound. The UCF signee walked only one and struck out 11 batters.

Columbia, which is batting .335, is led at the plate by senior Hayden Gustavson (.429, 36 H, 31 RBI) and Phillips (.471, 33 H, 29 RBI).

The No. 2 seed Tigers (24-5) will play No. 3 seed American Heritage (Plantation) this morning at 10 a.m. in the Class 5A state semifinals at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers.

American Heritage, which is batting .307, defeated 5A-Region 4 top seed Archbishop McCarthy (Fort Lauderdale), 4-3, in the region final to advance.

Columbia coach Chris Howard will sit out the state semifinal to finish a two-game suspension.

The winner will play either top seed Jesuit (Tampa) or No. 4 seed Sebring for the Class 5A state title at 11 a.m. on Wednesday. 


Monday, May 22

Class 1A state semifinals
1 Branford
 vs. 4 Jay, 11 a.m.
2 Dixie County (Cross City) 
vs. 3 Liberty County (Bristol), 1:30 p.m.

Tuesday, May 23
Class 1A state championship, 4 p.m.


Monday, May 22

Class 5A state semifinals
2 Columbia (Lake City) 
vs. 3 American Heritage (Plantation), 10 a.m.

Wednesday, May 23
Class 5A state championship, 11 a.m.

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