TAMPA — Ask Jefferson coach Eve Soto-Suarez about senior pitcher Nikki Lopez, and Soto-Suarez begins to gush before stopping herself.
"I don't want to use the word perfect — she doesn't like that much," Soto-Suarez said. "But honestly, she's up there."
It's hard to argue with her.
Lopez's last B came on the final day of third grade, in writing. Since then, she's carried a flawless grade-point average, balanced high school courses with Hillsborough Community College classes and has become Jefferson's valedictorian — and one of the county's top pitchers.
"Sometimes I won't sleep much, or at all," Lopez said, "but I manage."
By focusing so much on academics as a child, she sneaked into softball late; she only convinced her mom to let her play because a close friend's team needed one more girl to fill out the roster. Since then, Lopez has added extra practices on the side that finally led to Jefferson's breakout season.
Lopez will carry a 1.80 ERA and .410 batting average into Wednesday's home matchup against Osceola in the Class 6A region quarterfinal.
"She doesn't throw the ball past you…" said Justine Fernandez, the Dragons' leading hitter with a .521 batting average. "She gets you on her spins."
What the 5-foot-4 Lopez lacks in power, she makes up in finesse, with a strong screwball and a tough-to-hit changeup. Using an arsenal of five strong pitches, Lopez has struck out 164 batters in 97 innings while earning 14 of her team's 16 victories.
She's allowed only four earned runs in her past eight starts while throwing abbreviated perfect games in blowout wins over King and Lennard. In last week's Class 6A, District 9 championship, Lopez allowed only five hits in a 2-1 victory over a Chamberlain team ranked second in the state.
Her coach says Lopez has earned so much respect from her teammates that the close-knit bunch is afraid to make an error for fear of letting down the ace.
"The girls, sometimes if they do make a mistake …they feel like, 'How am I doing this to her?' She doesn't deserve that,' " Soto-Suarez said.
Lopez is quick to credit her individual success to a team behind her that's making its fourth consecutive playoff appearance. A strong defense has helped the self-proclaimed perfectionist realize that she doesn't have to be perfect.
"Knowing that they're there, if a ball gets hit, they can make the play and still support me," Lopez said. "It's such a relief, because I know that all the pressure's not on me entirely."
Lopez's success has fueled the best season in Jefferson history. Last week's win over Chamberlain secured the program's first fast-pitch district title.
The Dragons celebrated Monday morning by picking up commemorative blue and gold T-shirts and handing the long-awaited championship trophy off to the school's principal. That's why Lopez was still glowing Monday, four days removed from the biggest win of her life.
"Knowing it's the first time ever, it was unexplainable," Lopez said. "It was probably the most perfect day I've ever had."
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.