By Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports
PUNTA GORDA — It was a moment softball players like Taylor Kirkus have dreamed about their entire lives.
Top of the sixth inning, Kirkus and Charlotte High School trailing Fort Myers 9-7. Kaylee Brannon and Marissa Stack began the frame with back-to-back singles, and Abby Hayse followed with a sacrifice bunt to move both runners into scoring position.
It set up the Tarpons’ clean up hitter, Kirkus, with an opportunity to tie the game.
And even though this was a formula which had worked many times throughout the season, this wasn’t the same situation. This was the regional semifinals.
“I was really nervous,” Kirkus admitted. “I was shaking. I think I was trying a little too hard to hit it. That was probably my worst game of the season hitting-wise.”
The 16-year-old Charlotte sophomore had every right to be nervous. It was an atmosphere unrivaled from anything she had seen that season.
Bleachers on the first-base side were lined with fans wearing blue and yellow chanting “T-K! T-K! T-K.” Behind her was a sea of green rooting against her.
Kirkus grounded into a fielder’s choice, but still managed to drive in a run, and eventually came around to score the go-ahead run, which gave the Tarpons a 10-9 lead in a game they ended up losing 11-10.
“I don’t think the moment overwhelmed her, but it shocked her,” Charlotte coach Greg Higgins said. “At the end of the day, I think that’s going to make her a better player for next season. When that happens again next season she’ll be able to say she’s been there.”
Her final line for that night read 0-for-3 with a walk, run batted in and another scored. Indeed it was one of Kirkus’ worst games, as she was held hitless only three other times during the season.
But that was just one game in a long season for Charlotte, in which they were the area’s most successful team in 2016, due in no small part to Kirkus.
She had a team-high .473 batting average with 22 RBI, 20 runs scored, six doubles and three home runs. Kirkus came up big in the six games against rivals Port Charlotte, Lemon Bay and North Port, going 9-for-19 with two homers and 10 RBI.
That’s why Kirkus is the Sun’s 2016 All-Area softball player of the year.
Kirkus doesn’t shy from the big moment. She wants those big at-bats, and wants to be an impact-maker on her team.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve wanted to be a catcher,” Kirkus said. “I wanted to be in the most important role on the field, and since I couldn’t pitch, I wanted to be a catcher.”
Her emergence as a strong defensive catcher also weighed heavily in her player of the year candidacy. After limited action behind the plate as a freshman, Higgins expected to catch Kirkus roughly 50 percent of the time as a sophomore.
It was clear early in the year, she was going to be the everyday backstop.
“The one thing she had this year that she lacked last year was the pitcher’s confidence in her as a catcher,” Higgins said. “The worst thing is to be a pitcher and throw to a catcher you don’t think catches you well.
“This year, that went away from the start.”
Perhaps it’s because catching is in her genes.
Kirkus’ mom, Amy, was the Tarpons’ catcher when she attended Charlotte High School.
Taylor inherited her mother’s skills and passion for softball, and even though she was in the stands for that final game against Fort Myers, the loss hit Amy just as hard as the players.
“I couldn’t go to sleep when I got home at night,” Amy said. “That was very intense. It took me a while to regroup.”
Amy says she was excited to see her daughter play the same position she did in high school, but also encourages her to go out and play other sports.
Taylor’s favorite sport is softball, but she loves playing basketball, too. She was honorable mention on the Sun’s All-Area girls basketball team after a solid sophomore season.
Kirkus averaged 6.2 rebounds per game as a starting forward, and also chipped in with 5.4 points a game. Her best game came in a 44-35 loss against Monsignor Pace, where she had a career-high 16 points to go along with 10 rebounds.
“I didn’t expect to be starting,” Kirkus said. “I wasn’t expecting that important role.”
But again, she sought, and thrived in, an important role.
That’s a trait Higgins wants in his players.
“I think in any sport, with any athlete, there’s no better feeling you can have than when you can put it on your shoulders, and say ‘I, tonight, will be one of the biggest parts of what we do,’” Higgins said. “Is it pressure? Yeah. But to me, that’s when everything comes together.”
Next year, when Kirkus finds herself in a big situation in an elimination game, she might not be as nervous.
Because now when she dreams about that moment, she already knows how it feels.
Lemon Bay • Sophomore • RHP
Totaled 98 innings pitched during the regular season, leading the Manta Rays to an 11-6 record in 18 starts. She had a 4.26 ERA with 50 strikeouts. She also consistently contributed to her own cause, accounting for 39 runs on offense.
Charlotte • Junior • RHP
Led the Tarpons to 16 wins as the team’s top arm, while only losing a pair of games. She compiled a 3.26 ERA.
North Port • Junior • C
Her most important job was controlling the pitching staff, but Kuhns also excelled with the bat. She hit .500, with seven doubles and 16 RBI.
Lemon Bay • Junior • 1B
It was an unbelievable season for Shaffer, who hit .520 with 10 doubles, 37 RBI and 32 runs scored while striking out just twice.
Charlotte • Sophomore • 2B
Was one of the area’s top hitters, with a .433 average. It seemed as if each of Hayse’s 29 hits for the Tarpons came in a big situation, and impressively she struck out only three times.
Lemon Bay • Junior • 3B
Did a little bit of everything with the bat for Lemon Bay. 19 hits, 16 RBI, 17 walks and a .396 batting average as the Manta Rays co-captain.
Port Charlotte • Sophomore • SS
Batted .333 while also anchoring the Port Charlotte defense. She had six extra base hits, 13 RBI and scored 27 runs.
Charlotte • Junior • OF
Was the Tarpons’ everyday centerfielder with excellent range. On offense, she hit .391 with six extra base hits, 16 RBI and struck out just six times.
Charlotte • Junior • OF/1B/P
Played all over the field for the Tarpons, but her bat was a mainstay in the heart of the order. She hit .407 with four doubles, three homers, and 18 RBI.
Lemon Bay • Senior • OF
Had a solid senior campaign, as she was in the top two in almost every category for the Manta Rays. She hit .423, drove in 18 runs and scored 30.
Charlotte: Marissa Stack
Port Charlotte: Seaaria Yiengst, Maranda Greene