Since the first of 2019, Highlands County has been in the mainstream news – and not for any good reasons. The county was in the spotlight when five women were killed at the SunTrust Bank in January. Residents also grieved with the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office as it recognized the suicide of a member of the Tactical Anti-Crime Unit days later.

The county had more unwanted statewide attention when an international drug ring was busted in March and the body of a young man reported missing in December was found buried in a shallow grave in a back yard.

TV cameras were back in the county last month when a propane tank facility caught fire, causing the evacuation of many residents, shutting down U.S. 27 in both directions for hours and burning a small neighborhood beyond recognition.

Highlands County has had a lot to deal with, and much of it has not been good. That is, until last week when the Sebring High School girls softball team secured the state championship.

The season had been grueling with temperatures in the last few weeks reaching well up into the 90’s, but the sweltering heat didn’t bother the girls. They played on, and they played well.

While it takes an entire team to win a game, there are key players to which a heap of thanks should be served. Layla Taylor had been intentionally walked so many times before and that was again the case in the semi-finals. During the extra inning, with one on and two outs, Layla drilled a home run over the centerfield fence for a game-winning, two-run homer, advancing the Sebring Blue Streaks to the Class 6A State Championship.

Emily Bible, Johneisha Rowe and Jade Sinness also played vital roles in the Blue Streaks win, rounding out the Sebring senior superfecta that helped push the team to its victory.

These four players graduated Saturday morning so they won’t be returning to the high school field next year. Neither will Coach Joe Sinness, who had already announced his plans to retire after 11 years of coaching girls softball at Sebring High and upon the graduation of his daughter, Jade.

After Friday’s thrilling 3-1 rally late in the game, Coach Sinness and his team brought home the state championship trophy for the first time in school history.

He said the team put in the work, with the junior and senior players taking their beatings for a couple of years. “All that experience has led up to where we are at right now. I couldn’t be more proud, no matter the outcome these girls did an amazing job. We took our doubters and proved them wrong,” he said.

Junior Maci Barnhart will return next year. She has already made her presence known and is feared by her opponents. When she was on the pitcher’s mound, it usually meant a win for the Sebring team and the opposing teams were well aware of the threat she carried.

Sebring Mayor John Shoop and his wife, School Board member Jan Shoop, were in attendance to watch the game, as was their son, J.C., who is president of the Sebring Firemen, Inc. They were joined by scores of parents and residents who attended the state championship to show their support of the girls and Coach Sinness.

The team didn’t give up. Even when they were down 1-0 and many thought the game was over, the girls cheered each other on and supported each other’s efforts.

The practice, the support and the determination they have shown time and time again this season took them all the way through Friday’s game to bring home the state championship trophy.

Finally, Highlands County can smile at the statewide attention being given.

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