GULFPORT — Two years ago, Boca Ciega made one of the most improbable runs in softball. The Pirates, 4-11 entering the district tournament, won five straight to make the state semifinals for the first time.
The players, most of whom were underclassmen, were confident they could start competing for state titles.
Boca Ciega coach Robin Little, who took over two years ago, was more cautious in her postseason prognostications. The Pirates moved up in classification from 5A to 6A last season. The district was more competitive. So was the region.
Once again, Boca Ciega made the playoffs, winning Class 6A, District 9. But any hopes of another state semifinal appearance were wiped out in a 6-1 loss to Auburndale in the region semifinals.
"I think the girls finally understood just how special it was to get to the state semifinals and just how difficult it is to get there," Little said. "It is not guaranteed."
Pirates pitching ace Caylie Van Auken was even more brutal in her assessment.
"We cracked under the pressure," Van Auken said.
That state semifinal appearance meant Boca Ciega would no longer fly under the radar — at least last season.
Now the Pirates are back to being an anonymous bunch. They have a solid record — 13-2 entering the week — and have already locked up the No. 1 seed in the 6A-9 district tournament that starts Monday. They also beat two-time defending conference champion Osceola for the first time in eight years.
Those accomplishments hardly go noticed in the Tampa Bay area, a hotbed for softball. Other programs have bigger wins, played tougher schedules.
Boca Ciega is hoping its recognition comes in the playoffs with another trip to state.
"I think we've learned what it takes to get there," Van Auken said.
There were some concerns at the beginning of the season. The Pirates graduated two players. The biggest loss was catcher Alexis Blasingane, now at Florida A&M. Blasingane was a three-year starter who called every pitch. She was just as solid at the plate as she was behind it, hitting a team-leading .667 last season.
"I was worried because I had such a comfort level with Alexis," Van Auken said. "She was the only catcher I had ever really worked with in high school."
The transition turned out to be smooth. Freshman Carmen Perez had plenty of experience as a catcher on the travel ball circuit. She also has been a solid hitter with a .465 average this season.
Another freshman, Alanah Rivera, leads the team in hitting at .500.
"Those two additions have been big for us," Little said.
Van Auken, a senior, has provided the veteran leadership. She is 9-2 with a 0.95 ERA and 103 strikeouts.
"I was in a leadership position last year, too, as a captain, but it was more difficult," Van Auken said. "I was a junior and there still were seniors on the team. It just became more easier this year."
The turning point actually came in a 3-2 loss to Palm Harbor University, the top team in Tampa Bay this season. Boca Ciega outhit the Hurricanes 9-6. PHU won it by scoring in the bottom of the seventh.
The previous two seasons, the Pirates lost a pair of games to PHU by a combined 26-5.
"Before, that was an automatic blowout," Little said. "I looked at the body language after that game this season. They were confident. They knew could compete with anyone. And that's only going to help us the rest of the way."