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Prose and Kohn

Lakewood Ranch High grads now NCAA stars

The Mustangs program has helped feed major college programs with talent.

Former Lakewood Ranch High softball star Claire Davidson gave up pitching for Duke University this season — and it has led to the best hitting results of the senior's career.
Former Lakewood Ranch High softball star Claire Davidson gave up pitching for Duke University this season — and it has led to the best hitting results of the senior's career.
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For three seasons at Duke University, former Lakewood Ranch High softball star Claire Davidson was a two-way player. 

Davidson, a left-hander, pitched and hit for the Blue Devils, just as she did with the Mustangs. It led to a fair amount of success in both areas. Davidson held a 3.02 ERA over three seasons (118.1 innings) while hitting .295 with 10 home runs and 28 RBIs. By her junior season, she was entrenched in Duke's lineup every day starting 58 of the team's 60 games either on the mound or in the outfield. 

Davidson's results were good, but she wanted to be great. With that mindset, Davidson and Duke made the decision to have her drop pitching from her list of duties for the 2024 season, focusing solely on hitting. It was a decision made easier by Duke's arsenal of effective pitchers, Davidson said. She knew that the team could be helped more with her in the batter's box than on the mound. 

Davidson, a senior, has proven the logic behind that decision as she has taken her offensive game to a new level. As of March 23, Davidson is hitting .423 with nine doubles, seven home runs and 32 RBIs, all of which lead the Blue Devils, as does her .516 on-base percentage. Davidson was named the Atlantic Coast Conference's Player of the Week on March 19 after going 5-10 with two home runs and seven RBIs in a three-game series against Florida State March 15-17. She also holds a perfect fielding percentage in the outfield. 

All the while, Duke keeps winning. The Blue Devils (25-2) are ranked No. 3 in the country by Softball America as of March 23.

"Having three years under my belt, three years with my teammates, has made our connection strong," Davidson said. "We're going out there and having fun every single game." 

Davidson said eliminating pitching from her repertoire has taken pressure off her at practice and during games. Davidson said she's had a shift in her mentality this season, wanting to end her career by playing free instead of trying to make each at-bat perfect. At the plate, Davidson said, all she's trying to do is hit a single. If it turns into a double or a home run, all the better. 

"I'm not worried about results anymore," Davidson said. "I just want to enjoy my last moments on the field with these people." 

In a twist of fate, the mindset has led to the best results of her career.

Though Davidson has thrived in 2024, she is hardly the only Lakewood Ranch softball star making the most of her NCAA opportunities. Here's a round-up of other players having strong seasons: 

McKenzie Clark, Clemson University

Clark, the former Mustangs outfielder — nicknamed "Pie" for her love of the dessert — is a senior at Clemson. Clark has continued to hit at a high level, as she has done throughout her career. 

As of March 23, Clark is hitting .345 with four doubles, two triples, eight home runs and 22 RBIs. Her batting average is third on the Tigers, but she tops the team in slugging percentage (.713) while holding a .969 fielding percentage in center field. Assuming Clark does not have a sharp drop-off in play in the second half of the season, she will finish her Tigers career with remarkable consistency, never hitting worse than a .328 average, with a high (so far) of .355. 

It is a consistency that has helped Clemson remain competitive in the ACC despite tough competition like Davidson's Blue Devils. The Tigers are 21-8 and ranked No. 13 by Softball America as of March 23. 

Payton Kinney, University of Connecticut

Kinney is a senior pitcher at Connecticut. The right-hander has been challenged physically and mentally at times with the Huskies, as she detailed when talking to the Observer last year, but she has been rock-solid on the mound in 2024. As of March 23, Kinney holds a 3.20 ERA and a 3-2 record in 25.1 innings of work, striking out 27 batters while walking 12. 

Former Lakewood Ranch High pitcher Payton Kinney has a 3.20 ERA as a senior at the University of Connecticut as of March 23.
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The Huskies are 16-11 overall, but 4-0 in Big East Conference play as of March 22. While Connecticut isn't considered a favorite to reach the Women's College World Series like other programs represented on this list, competing for a conference championship is a real possibility for Kinney and the Huskies as she closes out her college career.

Cassidy McLellan, University of Florida

McLellan, a freshman outfielder, is the youngest player on this list, but she is quickly making an impact at Florida. McLellan is hitting .391 with two doubles and nine RBIs in 23 at-bats, while also walking eight times for an on-base percentage of .529. 

She's earning the trust of her coaches: McLellan has started the team's last four games and reached base six times in those games. She also holds a perfect fielding percentage. 

Expect even better numbers as McLellan advances her career. 

Jillian Herbst, Colgate University

Herbst, a junior outfielder at Colgate, could likely find a home at a bigger and better NCAA Division I school if she so chose — Colgate is 10-15 in 2024 — but it appears she is content to put up big numbers for the Raiders. 

Former Lakewood Ranch High outfielder Jillian Herbst is hitting .356 with three doubles, one home run and nine RBIs in 2024 at Colgate University.
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Herbst, a slapper-style leadoff hitter, is batting .356 with three doubles, one home run and nine RBIs in 2024. Her average and on-base percentage (.447) lead the team, and she holds a .974 fielding percentage. Since Herbst arrived at Colgate, the Raiders have played 121 games and Herbst has started 120 of them, missing one game in 2023. 

Taylor Woodring, East Carolina University

Woodring, a junior utility player, is not a cemented starter with the Pirates, but has carved out a niche as a successful pinch hitter. Woodring has seen action in 23 games (nine starts) and has hit .351 with three doubles and three RBIs. Her average is higher than five of the Pirates' typical starting nine players. 

A lack of a true defensive position might be holding Woodring back from a full-time starting position, but she has managed to make a positive contribution anyway. The Pirates are 22-8 and appear poised to compete for a title in the American Athletic Conference. 



Ryan Kohn

Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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