NEW PORT RICHEY — River Ridge has crept into rare territory.
After Thursday's 6-0 win against Land O'Lakes, the Royal Knights are within a victory of matching the program's best start to a season.
A win against Ridgewood in one week would put River Ridge at 20-1. The Royal Knights last reached that mark in April 2002 en route to the Class 4A state championship game, which they lost 1-0 to Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas. That season River Ridge started 20-0 before Countryside handed the Royal Knights their first loss, 1-0 in the Jon Sinclair Memorial Spring Fling Invitational.
"We lost to three state champions that year," River Ridge coach Ernie Beck said of the 31-3 finish. "… I've had a lot of good teams through the years. Leadership puts you over the top."
It's not hard to find the leader of this year's group. Like it or not, Lakyn Shull is the middle of it all.
The River Ridge junior is often picking off batters with her overpowering pitches or cranking out key hits, helping her own effort. On Thursday, she made her third appearance in three games this week, including back-to-back starts.
Shull, who has been a starter all three of her varsity seasons, went the distance Thursday, throwing six strikeouts and allowing five hits for the complete-game shutout. She also had the winning hit, an RBI double in the first inning for a 1-0 lead.
"As a coach you like that," Beck said. "Sometimes she comes through and sometimes she doesn't. Let's face it, pitching is a pressure position. … If she never hit I wouldn't care."
The Royal Knights, who entered this season with plenty of unproven talent, had another one of their big innings in the fifth.
Credit Land O'Lakes (12-8) with keeping pace with the Royal Knights, but a handful of miscues ultimately caught up to the Gators. After starting pitcher Kasey Murray was able to strike out the final batter in the fourth, stranding two in scoring position, the Royal Knights loaded the bases in the fifth, scoring four runs to put the game out of reach.
Shull, Madison Morris and Ana Alberti had doubles. Morris had a pair of RBIs.
Asked what the difference has been in her junior season, Shull pointed out the relaxed atmosphere.
"We all get along a lot better on this team," Shull said. "Before we had the talent, but I don't think we were all on the same page. … We had some tense moments. On this team, there isn't any of that."
Izzy Gould can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 421-3886.