ST. PETERSBURG — In 2006, Jody Moore was hired to coach softball at Canterbury as the school entered district play for the first time. She barely had enough players to field a varsity team, much less one for middle school.
Moore knew the fortunes of her team would turn on a promising yet inexperienced group of sixth-graders.
Making sure the newcomers were not glued to the bench, Moore gave them pivotal roles, ensuring the Crusaders would go through a series of highs and lows as they learned by trial and error.
Lacy Adams, Julia Cieutat, Jennifer Crosthwaite and Emily Winesett made up the core of sixth-graders on that varsity team seven years ago. They made the playoffs that year — and every year since. Since entering district play, Canterbury has won seven straight district titles and made the state tournament the past four seasons. Last year, the Crusaders won their first state title.
Now, Canterbury (17-11) is trying to defend that title. The Crusaders are four games from repeating, starting with Friday’s Class 2A region semifinal against Fort Myers Southwest Florida Christian.
“We’ve been playing together so long,” Adams said. “It was a goal of ours to win state. Now that we’ve won, it’s different. We’re no longer the underdogs. But we still want to win especially since it’s the last year we’re all together.”
District championship and state titles were not the first thing the foursome was thinking about when they started playing varsity softball.
“The field looked nice, and it seemed like a cool thing to do,” Cieutat said. “But I didn’t really know what I was doing at first.”
Crosthwaite had the most experience. She played T-ball when she was 5. Winesett joined Crosthwaite in Little League. The only time Adams and Cieutat had played was during makeshift throwing sessions in Winesett’s front yard.
“I had a pitching rubber in the front yard and we would all play catch,” Winesett said. “We broke a windshield and dented some mailboxes, but my parents didn’t seem to mind too much.”
At first, Moore had to teach the basics to her newcomers, particularly Adams and Cieutat.
“It was definitely softball 101,” Moore said. “We had to teach how to hold a bat, how to tuck the glove in when you run. But I knew these girls could become great players. It wasn’t based strictly on athleticism. It was more hard work and a willingness to learn.
“They were in middle school playing varsity softball and were able to learn the game at a fast pace. And they learned how to do things the right way the first time.”
It didn’t take long before the four became the nucleus of the program. They also helped raise the profile of softball at the school. When Canterbury started district play, they had about 25 girls who played softball. Now there are 55, more than enough to field middle school, junior varsity and varsity teams.
“Softball is now important here,” Crosthwaite said. “We’re known now as the Canterbury School of Softball.”
After seven years on varsity, the games will soon end. The four, who have attended Canterbury since kindergarten, will be playing college softball in different states next year.
“It’s going to be sad to be split up next year,” Adams said. “Playing in college would not have even crossed our minds seven years ago. I mean, we were in sixth grade. We were just happy to be playing varsity softball. We still are.”
Friday's region semifinals
8A: Palm Harbor University at Durant, 7
7A: Countryside at Chamberlain, 4
6A: Osceola at Lakewood Ranch, 7
5A: Boca Ciega at Dunedin (Dunedin Little League), 7
2A: Fort Myers Southwest Florida Christian at Canterbury, 6
Bob Putnam can be reached at email@example.com