CLEARWATER — She waited her whole life for her senior year.
When it finally arrived, Kim Mazzapica waited her whole senior year for just one more chance.
"I was going to pitch as long as I could,'' she said.
Six innings was just about right.
She left East Lake's softball district semifinal victory over Palm Harbor University on Tuesday with the lead. She left the Eddie C. Moore Complex with a memory to last her for a long time.
"Always,'' she said. "For sure.''
There has been nothing sure about Mazzapica's senior season, from the moment her right cleat stuck into the clay field in a preseason game and didn't unstick.
She felt a pull. She sat out two weeks. When the pain in her abductor muscle — a "nice way to say groin, I guess,'' she quipped — persisted, further tests revealed a tear.
"Two weeks turned into 4-6 weeks turned into eight weeks,'' Mazzapica said. "It felt like eight months, though.''
The Eagles stumbled to start the season. So many promising freshmen, no senior pitcher to lead them. After six games, East Lake had won just twice.
"It was killing her,'' coach Mike Estes said.
But Mazzapica showed up at every practice, every game. She took freshman pitchers under her wing. She tested her injury and tried to hide her frustration when the pain flared again.
"It has been one of the hardest things I've ever done in my whole life,'' she said.
Estes eased her back over the past two weeks, a few innings here and there. Tuesday, with just a dozen innings to her credit, she started the biggest game of the season, against a team that had beaten her time after time after time. Sure, there was that one time her sophomore year she beat the Hurricanes, but there also were the past two district finals, both losses.
Estes, looking back at what Mazzapica has meant to the program, all the big games she has won, how she has been a rock the past three seasons, believed she deserved to start this game on this night against that team.
"We won or lost with her the last three years. It's her senior year. I would feel real bad if I didn't give her that chance,'' Estes said.
She stretched like a dancer in between innings on a chilly night, jamming that same cleat into the chain link and bending and grimacing.
Mazzapica was in and out of trouble for five innings but didn't yield a run. Estes asked for one more inning because the top of the PHU order was coming up, so she adjusted the silver sequined band keeping her hair back and trotted out there.
"After that inning,'' she said, "I was dead.''
With the Eagles leading 5-3, Estes turned to one of the freshmen to finish up.
Hayley Davis was ready.
She was one of those freshmen Mazzapica, instead of skipping practices and moping, helped nurture and teach and toughen up during the year.
Mazzapica leaned against the fence and cheered as Davis saved the game and the season she had waited a long time for.
John C. Cotey can be reached at (813) 909-4612 or firstname.lastname@example.org.