ST. PETERSBURG — The fear is gone these days for Canterbury’s youngsters, intimidation replaced by confidence. They are undaunted by the intensity of high school softball as well as the pressure that comes with playing for a perennial state title contender.
And they are maturing quickly. Three victims in three postseason games, most notably Class 2A defending state champion Grandview Prep in last week’s region final, will attest to that.
With four eighth-graders in its starting lineup, Canterbury (19-12) has played beyond its years and advanced to Friday’s Class 2A state semifinal against Academy at the Lakes at 10:30 a.m. in Vero Beach.
“And these are four eighth-graders in the meat of our batting order,” Crusaders coach Jody Moore said. “Normally you wouldn’t see something like that, but these girls are pretty unique.”
This middle school pre-eminence signals the sophistication of players who entered high school softball seasoned by travel ball. All four eighth-grade starters — Taylor Bump, Miranda Posey, Danielle Romanello and Kama Woodall — have played on the travel ball circuit, often against older competition, for at least five years.
“We might be eighth-graders,” Romanello said, “but we’ve been around the block a few times when it comes to softball.”
Romanello is the veteran among the neophytes. She started in seventh grade and has developed into one of the county’s best power hitters. This season she has a team-leading .455 average and a county-best 10 home runs.
Her talent was noticeable for years, even to college recruiters. In March she committed to the University of Florida, six months before attending her first class as a high school student.
Posey, who was on the team last year, is in her first year as a varsity starter at second base. Bump, a shortstop, and Woodall, a pitcher, both transferred from other middle schools. Woodall commutes from Spring Hill each day.
“It’s an hour drive each way,” Woodall said. “At first I wondered how it would be coming here, but now it’s totally worth it. It was the best decision.”
Playing middle schoolers on varsity is nothing new for Moore. When she took over Canterbury’s softball program in 2006, she had to use sixth-graders out of necessity; she didn’t have enough to field a team. Four of those sixth-graders are now playing in college.
“We do have older players who play, but I like to start them young because I can mold them,” Moore said. “It’s encouraging to see them develop and have them for so many years.”
One of the senior captains, first baseman Savvy Mitchell, started in eighth grade. Now she’s the one the younger players look to for advice.
“I knew this year I would have to be even more of a leader,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t quite sure what to expect having so many new faces. But I think we’ve all bonded well, and the younger players have a lot of respect for the ones like me that have been here for so long.”
Few coaches prepare their teams to win in May as consistently as Moore, through eight straight district titles, five state semifinal appearances and a state title (2011).
Much of the groundwork for this year’s final four was done long before the Crusaders showed up at Vero Beach for today’s state semifinal.
It started in March and April, when Moore sprinkled her nondistrict schedule with tough opponents. This season Canterbury played in three out-of-area tournaments with every game against teams in higher classifications.
Moore’s players, even the younger ones, developed toughness and togetherness.
“I thought we’d have a pretty good team coming back, and I asked the girls who were returning what they wanted their season to look like,” Moore said. “They all said they wanted to play the best. The addition of some of the other girls only added to what we already had, and the schedule prepared them for where we are now.”
Where: Vero Beach Sports Village
Admission: $9 per session
Parking: $5 for cars, $25 for buses
Class 2A: Academy at the Lakes vs. Canterbury, 10:30 a.m.; Orlando Pine Castle Christian vs. Princeton Christian, 11:30 a.m.
At stake: Winners meet in Saturday’s 11:05 a.m. title game, which will air on BHSN.