Region softball: Tampa Catholic ends state semifinal drought

The Crusaders show off their power to beat Calvary Christian and advance to the final four for the first time in 22 years.
Tampa Catholic celebrates after making the state softball semifinals for the first time since 1997. (BOB PUTNAM |  Times)
Tampa Catholic celebrates after making the state softball semifinals for the first time since 1997. (BOB PUTNAM | Times)
Published May 16

CLEARWATER — Alexa Russo spent the past few days at practice hitting outside pitches. When the Tampa Catholic senior saw a pitch painting the corner Wednesday, she pounced.

The University of Tampa signee smacked the softball with authority. Moments later, she started circling the bases after her shot sailed over the fence at Clearwater’s Eddie C. Moore Complex.

“Outside is my favorite pitch,” Russo said. “I missed the first one, then I got good contact on the second one. I was just trying to drive it to the right side and bring my runners home.”

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Her three-run homer in the top of the first inning set the tone in Wednesday’s Class 4A region final against Calvary Christian. The Crusaders did not get any more home runs, but they had plenty of timely hits that produced runs in a 9-5 victory to secure their first state semifinal appearance since 1997.

“There’s nothing like this,” Russo said of her team heading to Vero Beach’s Historic Dodgertown, site of the state tournament. “We’ve been trying to do this since my freshman year. We’ve been so close before and now we’re here. It’s exciting.”

This was the fourth meeting between the programs. The Warriors (24-4) won two of the previous three, including the District 4 championship game.

Calvary Christian can light up the scoreboard. The Warriors already reached their goal of hitting 20 homers as a team this season entering Wednesday’s game. They tried to add to that total, hitting a few balls that reached the warning track but none cleared the fence.

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Olivia Mendez kept Calvary Christian’s powerful lineup off balance by changing speeds and adding all kinds of movement.

“Analyzing from the last time we played, I was working my changeups and making sure I was working my curveball and screwball just to keep the movement going,” said Mendez, who allowed 10 hits.

Ahead 4-2, the Crusaders (19-8) added to their lead in the fourth inning. Gabby Burleigh and Cassidy Gonzalez each hit two-run doubles, both with two outs, to make it 8-2.

In the sixth, Tampa Catholic scored another run to make it 9-2.

Down to their final three outs, the Warriors rallied. Charlotte Schultheis had a two-run double and Kaylin Cole had a run-scoring single to cut it to 9-5.

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But the comeback ended when the Crusaders’ Grace Barkley snagged a sharply hit ball for a flyout, then flipped it to Russo at second to complete the double play for the final two outs.

This was just the second time Calvary Christian was held to fewer than 10 runs in the past nine games, both of those coming against Tampa Catholic.

“It’s tough to beat a team three times in a season,” Warriors coach Darrell Don said. “It’s not that we played poorly. We just didn’t get the big hits early. I’m proud of them. God’s blessed us with an unbelievable season.”