CLERMONT — It was clear once Canterbury’s Julia Cieutat turned on a pitch, the ball would get past the infield between first and second.
The crowd, nearly 100 strong, began to cheer in disbelief. Many fans were already on their feet. Others rose to join them.
Pinch-runner Kelsey Hill was standing on second. As she churned around third and headed for home, the players in the dugout edged onto the field, squeezing each other’s arms. Hill easily beat the throw from the outfield and the crowd erupted.
All the players leapt in that ungainly way that kids have of jumping around in excitement, skipping and falling and tackling each other as they ran toward home plate.
The Crusaders ended years of frustration Thursday as Hill slid home for the winning run in a 1-0 eight-inning victory over Boca Raton Grandview Prep in the Class A state championship. It is the first time Canterbury has won a state team title in any sport and the first time a Pinellas County school has won a state softball title since Palm Harbor University did it in 2005.
“I thought I was in a dream after scoring,” Hill said. “I needed someone to pinch me to know that it was real.”
The biggest question for Canterbury coming into the final was how it would fare against Jane Sallen, who struck out 18 batters and had a perfect game going into the sixth inning of Wednesday’s semifinal victory over Aucilla Christian.
But the Crusaders were used to facing dominant pitchers after coach Jody Moore designed a schedule that included many games against teams in higher classifications.
“I knew we needed to see that type of pitching during the regular season,” Moore said. “And we’re now used to playing in big games.”
Through the first few innings, Sallen was on again, throwing with efficiency and precision. But as the zeroes continued to stretch across the scoreboard, she started to fatigue.
And the Crusaders capitalized.
By the eighth inning, Sallen allowed Lacy Adams to reach on an error and gave up a single to Sarah Fleming.
“I think (Sallen) got a little rattled,” Fleming said. “We were making contact throughout the lineup and she wasn’t used to getting hit like that.”
With one out and runners on first and second, Sallen threw a pitch across the plate that Cieutat rapped for the winning hit.
“We started timing her,” Cieutat said. “I knew if I was able to hit a ground ball, Kelsey was fast enough to get home and win the game.”
Thursday’s game was the fourth time the Crusaders won in extra innings this season.
“We work really hard in practice for these type of situations,” Moore said. “We’re conditioned to play late in games.”
Moore also used her two-platoon pitching system to perfection. Krissy Longstreet started and allowed two hits and struck out four in five innings. Emily Winesett came on in relief and gave up two hits while striking out seven.
For Longstreet and Fleming, the only seniors on the team, the state title comes after three years of falling short on the sport’s biggest stage.
“I came close to leaving Canterbury after we lost in the championship game my sophomore year,” Fleming said. “I was going to go to a boarding school in Boston. But I just couldn’t leave this team. It was the best decision I ever made.”