AVON PARK - Just when South Florida State thought it was safe to go back in the water, the Miami Dade College Sharks came swimming into town.
The Panthers (4-18) dropped both games to the Sharks (12-5) in Saturday's softball double header, falling by scores of 8-0 and 4-0, respectively.
"We had two costly errors in the sixth inning of the first game," said SFSC coach Carlos Falla. "And they came when we had two outs. It's a lot harder to get five outs when you just need to make three outs."
Outside of one bad inning, the opening game had all the necessary ingredients for a classic pitching duel.
Paige Davis got the start for the Panthers, and was unhittable early. She retired the side in the top of the second and allowed just two hits through the first three innings.
But Sharks hurler Raquelli Bianco was just as stingy. Bianco had the Panthers flummoxed, and SFSC was struggling to put the ball in play.
"We just wouldn't make any adjustments," Falla said. "Instead of being patient at the plate, we got anxious. Instead of swinging at strikes we swung at pitches out of the zone."
Miami Dade broke the scoreless tie in the fourth inning. Bianco led off with a single, and Cassandra Perez advanced her to second base with a sacrifice bunt. Davis recovered to force Samantha Cardillo into a ground out, but Milena Calixto blasted a double to score Bianco.
The fifth inning was quiet for both teams, but the Sharks added two more runs in the top of the sixth thanks to a Panthers error. Trailing 3-0, SFSC was on the verge of scoring some runs in the bottom of the sixth. But with the bases loaded and one out, Kelly Olson hit into an inning-ending double play. It was the most runners the Panthers had on base all game.
"Errors will always hurt you," Falla said. "Paige (Davis) was doing so well for most of the game. But when we can't get out of the inning, her pitch count just keeps going up."
The game got out of hand in the seventh inning. Miami Dade tacked on five runs to balloon its lead to 8-0. The Panthers went quietly in their final trip to the plate, as Bianco retired the side to clinch the win.
Falla said the team continued to struggle in its at-bats in the nightcap.
"It was the same thing in the second game," he said. "We didn't make any offensive adjustments. Despite what their kids were throwing, we kept flying out to right field. You can't win any games if you're not going to utilize the whole field."
After an impressive fall season where the Panthers looked unbeatable, Falla said the way his team has been playing in the spring has been a tremendous shock.
"It's like black and white," he said. "We were an entirely different team. If you would've have shown me our record after how well we played this spring, I wouldn't have believed you."
And with conference play quickly approaching, Falla is hoping the Panthers will come out of their slumber.
"We've got 12 games to figure it out," Falla said. "And its not like we can't do it. We've been getting a lot of hits and scoring runs - what happened this weekend was pretty uncharacteristic of us. But even in some of the games where we've scored a few runs and gotten some home runs, we still have found ways to lose. That's been our biggest weakness this season. We find ways to lose instead of ways to win."
The Panthers host Grand Rapids Community College Tuesday afternoon at 5 p.m. SFSC opens conference play on March 20, when St. Petersburg College comes to Panther Field.
While Falla faces an uphill challenge in turning his team's fortunes around in such a tight window, he's confident that they're ready for it.
"I know these girls are capable of that," he said. "It's like a light switch with them. You turn it on and we could roll off 15 in a row."