ORANGE PARK – An unusual request to rebuild the pitcher’s mound backfired with fervor as the Ridgeview High softball girls danced and sang their way to an eruptive sixth inning to beat visiting West Florida High 5-1 in the region 1-6A championship on Friday at Ridgeview High School.
“Once we got the momentum, everything starting going from there,” said Ridgeview first year coach Casey Thompson. “I preach at them to always keep it positive and they feed off of staying positive. The delay did not affect us at all because we came back to the game loose and ready to go.”
The win puts the Panthers into a first-ever Final Four spot in Class 6A. Ridgeview was scheduled to play Sebring in one of the Class 6A semifinals on Thurs., May 23 with Crystal River playing Rockledge in the opposite semifinal. The Final Four lineup is all new teams with defending 6A champion American Heritage (Plantation) losing 4-2 to Rockledge in their region final. The Class 6A final is set for May 24 at 12:35 p.m. in Vero Beach.
Thompson joins sister Christina Thompson at the Final Four festivities with Thompson leading the Oakleaf High Lady Knights to their Class 8A Final Four with a 13-0 thrashing of East Ridge High in the region 1-8A championship. Oakleaf bashed out 14 hits against East Ridge with Jaycie Brookshire getting four RBIs and Baylee Goddard hitting three RBIs. Oakleaf has a Class 8A title two years ago and a runnerup finish last year to add to the 2019 Final Four ticket.
“She had to up me a bit, I guess,” said Thompson. “It’s all good.”
Casey Thompson’s methodical ascension to the Final Four came by way of his replacing departed coach Roger Harvey, who passed away unexpectedly last year after guiding the Panthers to a first-ever district title and region playoff berth. Thompson slowly built the momentum of the 2019 season with the presence of Nancy Harvey in his dugout and aura of Coach Roger Harvey on the minds of the Panthers girls from the onset.
“I gave each of the girls a bandana to put in their pockets before the season,” said Harvey after the Panther girls won their second district title two weeks prior to the region championship. “He’s is always here in this dugout.”
As for the rebuild of the pitcher’s mound came at the request of West Florida coach Belinda Pittman, also a first-year coach. The rebuild took about 25-30 minutes of delay, but, more extraordinarily, created a festive atmosphere by the Panther dugout and fans that forebode the ensuing Ridgeview play in the fateful sixth inning.
In the third inning, after both pitchers extinguished any scoring threats with six strikeouts apiece, West Florida stormed out to a quick 1-0 lead with an inside-the-park homer from sophomore Kiauna Watson, who sped the bases after pounding a Brittany Micheal pitch to the centerfield fence where outfielders Ashlyn Halford and Reghan Boyd gave chase to try and beat Watson lap of the basepaths.
“In the dugout after that, we just tried to put it behind us,” said Sarah Anderson. “It was just one run and we just said to each other, ‘let’s get it back’. We were totally behind Brittany.”
West Florida nearly blew the game up with two walks and a single testing Michael and the Panther defense to set up a bases loaded scenario. With Jaguar hitter Measia Armstrong holding out to a three balls, two strike count, Michael fired off an inside pitch that stunned Armstrong and ended the inning.
“I think Brittany was an eight of 10 in the early part of the game,” said Thompson. “For some reason, she pitches best with baserunners behind her. When she has threats to score, she goes lights out.”
Ridgeview used Michael’s strikeout to attack in the batters box with Hannah Foster landing a bunt as the Jaguar infield watch the ball not go foul, then, in the outfield, Anderson got her own single off a blooper that two infielders watch drop to the turf and put two Panther baserunners in play.
With the irony of Michael’s strong defensive finish of the previous inning, it was twin sister Brooke Michael, the Panther catcher, who delivered a rocket-launched two run double to left field that put Foster and Anderson across home plate.
“I didn’t even feel it go off the bat,” said Michael.
In the Jaguars’ next at bat, it was Anderson, the Panther second baseman, who came up with a stunning tagout on a rundown between first and second that put the Jaguars on their heels and back on the field.
“I had two errors earlier and had to redeem myself,” said Anderson. “I’ve been sick all day; a sore throat, and had to get my mind right.”
Two quick flyouts and a strikeout put Ridgeview back on the field in a hurry, but Michael responded with two strikeouts, including a called strike three on Watson to keep the score at 2-1.
Michael again faced off with a potentially dangerous situation with West Florida getting baserunners to first and second, but a chat with sister Brooke was followed by a riveting strikeout showdown with West Florida’s Morgan Parks.
Prior to Ridgeview taking the batter’s box, Pittman and West Florida pitcher Jeya Prasad requested the rebuild of the pitcher’s mound, citing a worn gulley in front of the rubber that both pitcher’s start their windups with.
After a tense 30 minutes of negotiating the rebuild with Ridgeview athletic director John Sgromolo and baseball assistant coach Tony Voiro attempting to appease the West Florida pair, umpires called for the game to continue.
“It was just their way to get back in our heads,” said Michael. “I guess it didn’t work.”
Four pitches walked Brooke Michael, Alyssa Adams just missed a left field homer foul before putting down a successful bunt before Halford was awarded first base to load the basepaths.
Brittany Michael started the Panther avalance with a deep fly to left field that scored sister Brooke, a run scoring bunt from freshman Natalie Foret scored Adams that got a final score off a throwing error. Up 5-1 amidst the chaos, designated hitter Tatiani Ilias bashed a double, but Foster hit a fly ball to end the surge.
“That was frosting on the cake,” said Thompson.
In their final attempt to overcome the Panther excitement, West Florida was sent home with a flyout, a monstrous swinging strikeout of Watson and Foster nailing a final grounder to end the game.
“I just wanted to throw it clean,” said Foster. “I had challenged them all night to come at me by staying close to the batter on defense. It’s kind of an intimation thing, but to have the last out was pretty intense.”