VERO BEACH — Two months ago, Admiral Farragut Academy’s softball team did not resemble a defending state champion.
The pitching staff issued too many walks. The offense did not score enough runs.
As a result, the losses piled up.
In late March, the Blue Jackets were 7-9, on pace for the team’s worst record since going winless in 2012.
And that was perfectly fine with first-year coach Bill Hoopes. He knew the record had a lot to do with the schedule, which was considerably tougher than in past years. Of the seven losses at that point, five came against teams that made the playoffs, including four that made the region final.
Though the outcomes were not always favorable, Admiral Farragut got better by being challenged.
The payoff came at the right time. The Blue Jackets entered Tuesday’s Class 3A state semifinal having won 11 of 12. The momentum continued with Admiral Farragut pouncing early to cruise to a 7-2 victory over Jacksonville University Christian.
“The schedule definitely helped,” Hoopes said. “When I took over the job, these girls had been playing for the same coach since they were in the seventh grade. Some of them were very resistant to me. That 7-9 wasn’t all schedule. Some of it was camaraderie and mojo and trusting me and the things I was trying to change. And feedback on things that didn’t need to be changed.”
What the schedule did was help the Blue Jackets face quality pitching throughout the season.
The Fighting Christians, who were making their first state semifinal appearance in three seasons, have a young team that includes just two seniors and four players who are seventh- or eighth-graders.
One of seventh-graders, Sophia Kardatzke, is a hard thrower who became the team’s ace.
The Blue Jackets (19-10) remained patient, working counts and waiting for the right pitches to attack. In the second inning, Admiral Farragut kept putting the ball in play and took advantage of miscues to take a 5-0 lead.
Katya Fe started it off with an RBI single. Alyssa Rano circled the bases on an error. Two of the other runs were also unearned.
University Christian’s offense came alive in the sixth inning, scoring two runs to cut it to 5-2.
The Blue Jackets answered. Rano had an RBI double and Lexi Hernandez had a run-scoring single to go up 7-2.
“That was the best pitcher we’ve seen since Lexi,” said Hoopes, referring to Academy at the Lakes star Lexi Kilfoyl. “And Lexi beat us. The pitching we saw from Strawberry Crest. The pitching we saw from Calvary Christian. Seeing Lexi twice during the year. All that prepared us for that kind of speed of pitching. We weren’t shocked.”
In all, Admiral Farragut had eight hits. Fe had three of them, and Hernandez and Hayley Saylor each had two.
“As soon as we got here we all had that same feeling in our gut we had from last year,” Rano said. “No matter what anyone else brings, we’re ready.”
On Wednesday, Admiral Farragut can join Palm Harbor University (2004-05) and Canterbury (2013-14) as the only Pinellas County teams to win two straight titles.
“One thing I learned in the Navy is take care of yourself, take care of others, but not worry so much what others are doing,” Hoopes said. “I pay attention to the stats of the game in front of me and make sure my kids are doing what they have to do. It would be a great honor to join two great coaches who have way more time in the game than I have. I would be very fortunate to join those ranks.”
Contact Bob Putnam at [email protected]. Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.
State softball semifinals
Jackie Robinson Training Complex, Vero Beach
Admission: $9 advance, $12 day of; parking $10.
Class 5A: Hernando vs. Coral Springs Charter, 9:50 a.m. Thursday
Class 9A: Newsome vs. Coral Gables, 7:50 p.m. Thursday
State softball finals
Class 2A: Academy at the Lakes vs. Mount Dora, 11:05 a.m. Wednesday
Class 3A: Admiral Farragut vs. Fort Pierce John Carroll, 4:35 p.m. Wednesday