Class 5A, Sickles (24-5) at East Lake (25-2), 7
Three reasons the Eagles will win:
Alyssa Bache: The Eagles have always been on the cusp of breaking through. With junior pitcher Alyssa Bache mowing through opposing lineups this season, it appears the Eagles have all the pieces to challenge for a state title.
Kirsten Bembnowski: Centerfielder Kirsten Bembnowski has been bothered by a knee injury recently, but coach Mike Estes said she should be available today. Bembnowski, an FGCU signee, is the Eagles' power hitter with five home runs, and has amazing range in the outfield.
Few weaknesses: The Eagles feature great pitching, stout defense and solid hitting. They're also deep with a decent amount of speed. All season, the Eagles looked like the one team that would represent the county at state, and that hasn't altered.
Three ways the Eagles could fall:
Long-term memory: Sickles ace Chelsea Oglevie limited the Eagles to two hits and one run when the teams met at Palm Harbor University's spring tournament in late March. If the Eagles continue struggling with Oglevie early today, it could be a long evening.
Bache: The junior's right forearm remains a constant worry. If she's limited by the injury, the Eagles will turn to freshman Kristen Berlo, a phenomenal pitcher in her own right but without Bache's postseason experience and success.
Scoring: The Eagles have scored only one run in each of their region playoff victories. They'll have to find a way to generate more offense, though it would be interesting for a team to reach state with three straight 1-0 wins.
Class 2A, Northside Christian (24-2) vs. Lakeland Christian (19-4) at Westside Softball Complex, 4
Three reasons the Mustangs will win:
Runs, runs and more runs: The Mustangs average more than 10 a game and 10-run ruled Fort Myers Evangelical Christian in the region quarters. Stephanie Bonalewicz, Kayla Turner, Jessica Anderson, Tiffany Boyer and Lauren Tozour are the big batters, but the Mustangs have players up and down the lineup that know how to get hits.
Anderson: The ace threw a no-hitter in the region quarters and defeated a very good Shorecrest team for the fourth time in the region semis. Her ERA has hovered near 1.00 all season, and she averages nearly eight strikeouts. If Anderson can limit her number of walks — she averages more than three a game — look out.
Aggressiveness: Whether it's stealing, taking extra bases, running on weak-armed outfielders, etc., the Mustangs go after as many runs as possible and make no apologies.
Three ways the Mustangs could fall:
Inexperience: The Mustangs have only made it this far once, back in 1995. They've never advanced to state.
Injuries: Specifically the one to centerfielder Katheryn Brown, who led the team in hitting before injuring her knee in the regular-season finale against Canterbury. Her bat will be missed, but her absence will be felt most in the outfield, where she was rock solid for the Mustangs. Which leads us to …
Fielding: A small school, Northside doesn't have the luxury of multiple players with experience on its bench. With Brown out, the Mustangs will rely on some of their rawer players to get them through defensively.
Class A, Canterbury (20-7) at West Palm Beach Berean Christian (17-4), 5
Three reasons the Crusaders will win:
Experience: Canterbury is playing for the region title for the fourth year in a row. It has won the past two. In a short amount of time, coach Jody Moore has built expectations to the point that the Crusaders are expected to make state.
Pitching depth: Staff ace Krissy Longstreet is a big-game pitcher who threw a two-hitter through six innings in the state semifinals a year ago. Sophomore Emily Winesett is a nice change of pace with her movement and control, and fellow sophomore Jennifer Crosthwaite hasn't pitched often but can get the job done in a pinch.
Coaching: One rival coach said it best: "(Moore) gets the absolute most out of her players." Especially at the Class A level, Moore's coaching could be the difference.
Three ways the Crusaders could fall:
Offensive production: Last season, Canterbury had three players batting better than .400 entering state. Entering districts this season, the Crusaders had just one (Crosthwaite).
The opponent: Berean pitchers Amber Johnson and Alison Flinn have combined to throw one-hitters in the Bulldogs' district final and region quarterfinal.
The hunted: The Crusaders have made a living the past couple years as the upstart program crashing the party. Can they continue rolling in the postseason now that they're the hunted rather than the hunters?
Bryan Burns, Times staff writer