ST. PETERSBURG — At Canterbury, the players wear practice T-shirts that read, "The Tradition Continues," but more and more these days that tradition feels like a dynasty.
The Crusaders have built a reputation around playing and winning games in May.
Since Jody Moore arrived at Canterbury in 2006, the Crusaders have made the playoffs all five seasons. In Moore's first year, they were region semifinalists; the next year they made it to the region finals. In 2008, Canterbury won its first region title and advanced to the state final four. Last year, the Crusaders reached the state title game.
The Crusaders expect to play this late in the season. Canterbury is the first county school to qualify for three straight state final fours.
"Every year, the girls get better with experience," said starting pitcher Krissy Longstreet, who struck out nine and allowed only two hits over six innings in last year's state semifinal win. "This will be our third year going back to states, so I think we'll have more experience in the big game. And we just have heart every year."
The Crusaders may perform like veterans in the playoffs, but Moore still likes to point out how young her team is.
The roster is dominated by underclassmen. Five sophomores and two freshmen start.
"That's a very young team in the world of varsity softball," Moore said.
But this is the first season the Crusaders fielded an entire roster of high schoolers without having to dip into the middle school for depth.
"It definitely makes a difference at the level you can push them," Moore said.
Canterbury had to replace three senior starters — Macey Hall, Kirstyn Smith and Chelsea Weiland represented its largest senior class — from last year's team.
The Crusaders, though, are at a level now where they can simply reload every year.
"We started off kind of slow this season," said leftfielder Nina Gomez, the lone senior. "We kind of expected to be the team we were at the end of last season. But we realized that's not how it happens, and we started working the way we're supposed to. And now the team's a lot stronger this year."
The Crusaders will need to be stronger to defeat Jacksonville Eagle's View at 7 p.m. Monday. The Warriors themselves had only two seniors last year when they shut down the Crusaders in the state final.
Eagle's View returns virtually its entire lineup. It did not give up a run in three region playoff games.
But the Crusaders are ready.
They won't be intimidated.
"We've played in big games before," Longstreet said. "We scheduled teams like St. Petersburg Catholic and Northside Christian this year, and those were big games. So, we know what to expect."
And, if the Crusaders don't win the school's first team state title in any sport this season, well, there's always next year.