TARPON SPRINGS — When Nikki Steiniger drove a third-inning, 3-2 fastball over the right-centerfield fence for a two-run home run and a four-run lead, it looked like the start of a big night for East Lake.
Little did the Eagles know that Tarpon Springs' feisty, team-oriented attitude would push the gulfside rivals back into the battle.
Veteran pitcher Tori Brennan buckled down to repel the rebounding Spongers, allowing the host Eagles to emerge with a 5-4 victory on a chilly Thursday evening.
"We had no intention of losing this game," said Steiniger, whose round-tripper ended up being the game's winning tally. "We came out strong, we had a purpose and we had to fulfill that purpose."
East Lake (8-2) — averaging 12 runs a game — was held to just one explosive inning by Tarpon (6-2). Prior to Steiniger's blast that also plated McKenna Graham (single), Athena Andrews (error) scored on Sydney Grossi's deep triple to the leftfield fence. Grossi came across on Kendyl Crean's infield groundout.
"We all had great hacks, some great cuts, but it was just a tough night," Steiniger said of a six-hit evening off of Tarpon hurlers Jenna Wojnar and freshman reliever Phoebe Howard (3 1/3 shutout innings, three hits, two strikeouts).
The Spongers, who snapped at least an 11-game losing streak to the Eagles last April, bounced right back in the fifth when a throwing error scored Cameryn Maga and a double from Kelsi Jeffries (two hits and a walk) brought home Hunter Ruch (walk) and Devyn Howard (error) to make it a one-run contest.
"We prep for who we're playing, but at the end of the day, they're learning to play for each other," said Tarpon coach Hannah Gatley. "One day it just clicked. They play for the name on the front of the shirt, not the one on the back."
But Brennan's mastery of the outside edge of the plate, mixed with a baffling changeup, allowed her to retire eight of the last nine batters she faced to emerge victorious.
"I've been really working on framing and I feel I've helped Tori gain a lot of those (outside calls), but Tori throws amazing," Steiniger said of the senior's seven-hit, nine-strikeout effort. "Her off-speed pitch really set up her fastball that (Tarpon) wasn't ready for."
"I'd rather face better teams midway through the season and realize what we have to work on before it comes and bites us in the butt come districts or regionals," Gatley said. "We can learn to be quicker, we can learn to adjust to pitching, but we gave (East Lake) a good test and I'm pleased with how we fared."