CLERMONT — Throughout the playoffs, East Lake relied on its pitchers to shut down teams while the offense scored just enough to advance.
The Eagles won three region games by a 1-0 count. Kristen Berlo threw a two-hitter to defeat Boca Ciega. Alyssa Bache sent the Eagles to the Class 5A state semifinals with successive shutouts of Pinellas Park and Sickles.
Wednesday, East Lake found out what life is like on the other end of that score.
East Lake and Niceville battled through five scoreless innings of their semifinal. In the bottom of the sixth, though, senior Kelly Hensley delivered the game's crucial hit, a two-out single that brought home Stephanie Hartness for a 1-0 victory.
Niceville (27-4) advances to tonight's state title game against East Bay (23-7-1), which dominated Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer 4-0 as Kayla Cox threw a two-hitter and struck out 12.
"The girls played their hearts out," East Lake coach Mike Estes said. "They left it on the field. Just one play didn't quite go our way there at the end."
East Lake's Achilles' heel all season — an inability to drive home runners in scoring position — came back to bite the Eagles at a most inopportune time.
East Lake (26-3) had a runner advance to at least second base in four of the first five innings but couldn't come through with a timely hit against junior pitcher Jessa Watts, who limited the Eagles to three hits.
"We were hitting the ball hard. I can't ask for anything more than that," Estes said. "We were right on (Watts). The ball was just finding gloves."
East Lake had a chance to score the first run in the third inning after Kristen Berlo drew a one-out walk and advanced to second on a groundout. With two outs, Marisa Palumbo singled to centerfield, but Berlo was tagged out at home when catcher Shannon Brinkley wheeled around on a throw up the third-base line and just barely grazed Berlo.
"Who knows? If she's safe there, maybe we blow the game open," Estes said.
Niceville escaped another jam after Kirsten Bembnowski led off the fourth inning with a triple to deep rightfield but was easily thrown out at home two batters later trying to score on a grounder to second base.
In the sixth inning, Niceville capitalized on its best scoring chance.
Hartness, who was 3-for-3, singled with one out and stole second — her third steal of the game — before Hensley dropped a single to leftfield just in front of Palumbo on a 3-and-2 count for the winning hit.
Bache, who struck out 10 Niceville batters, located her pitch where Estes wanted it. It just so happened that it was also the pitch Hensley was looking for.
"I just tried to foul off some of those outside pitches, and finally she came inside with that rise ball and I was able to get around on it," Hensley said. "I was hoping for something inside, but it wasn't too high so I was able to get on top of it."
For East Lake, a team that graduates just one senior starter, Wednesday's loss stings, but the Eagles hope to draw from their first state tournament experience since 1993 and go a step further a year from now.
"I feel sorry for the seniors," Estes said. "They're going to be the ones most upset. … But, we have a legitimate shot of being back here next year."