Emily Eicholtz thought about it before every game.
"If everything goes right, tonight might be the night," the Springstead junior pitcher would tell herself.
Eicholtz threw a one-hitter earlier this year against Leesburg. She tossed another against Hudson. But in three seasons as a starter, she never had pitched a no-hitter.
Monday night, everything finally went right. Her fastball cutting in on batters' hands, her changeup keeping them off balance and her father, Mike, calling pitches from the dugout, Eicholtz fired the first no-hitter in the 15-year history of Springstead's fast-pitch softball program.
She struck out five and allowed one walk, coming within one pitch of a perfect game in the Eagles' 13-0, five-inning victory over South Sumter.
"I've always wanted to do it," Eicholtz said. "I'd come close and everything _ that's always good _ but to actually do it, that's really good."
"Really good" was what Springstead coach Carmine Rufa thought of Eicholtz the first time he saw her pitch as an eighth-grader at Powell Middle School.
Eicholtz, who started pitching early at her father's urging, had outstanding technique and determination to match.
By the time she was a freshman, Rufa knew he had found his pitcher for the next four seasons.
"A lot of times something happens out of the ordinary and that never happens," Rufa said, "but in this case, she's developed perfectly."
Eicholtz's success is a direct result of her hard work. When she isn't studying _ she is a high honors student _ she is usually lifting weights, playing travel ball or running cross country.
"She sacrifices a lot for the game and the position," Rufa said.
Since entering the program, Rufa estimates Eicholtz has pitched 95 percent of Springstead's innings, including every inning this year.
At first, the Eagles lacked an alternative. These days, they can't find a better one.
"You have to be there a lot mentally," Eicholtz said. "If you're feeling tired, if you tell yourself you can do it, you'll be able to get it in there. But if you tell yourself you can't do this, it's not going to help at all. You've just got to keep up and do the best you can."
Eicholtz started with a fastball and a changeup her freshman year and developed a screwball the following season. This year, she refined her changeup and added a riseball and dropball.
"Now, I'm able to put the ball into different places and keep the batters guessing on what they're going to get," Eicholtz said.
Though she used all five pitches against South Sumter, the fastball and changeup were most effective.
Eicholtz took a perfect game into the third before walking Monica McFarland on a 3-2 pitch she thought was a strike.
"It was right there," Eicholtz said.
The no-hitter continued into the fifth inning.
With two outs, Sara Hickman hit a line drive to second baseman Ashley Liberatore, filling in for Vicki Albert.
Liberatore snatched the ball out of the air, ending the game.
"Everything was working," said Eicholtz, who also doubled twice and drove in two runs. "Balls were going where they were supposed to. There were not really any mess-ups anywhere."
Eicholtz, 9-4 with 50 strikeouts and a 0.94 earned-run average in 89 innings, has two more wins than she did all of last season. She is batting .362 with nine runs scored and nine RBIs.
With more than a year remaining in her prep career, Eicholtz hopes to pitch a perfect game before going on to play in college.
She is interested in North Florida and Wingate, a private school in North Carolina. She hopes to become an athletic trainer or teacher.
"She's progressed nicely," Rufa said. "She's taken the little steps, and now the benefits are just paying off."
A CLOSER LOOK
Emily Eicholtz's no-hitter, batter-by-batter:
FIRST INNING: Bridgette Cossin groundout to short, Dawn Dempsey flyout to center, Jessica Harris groundout to pitcher.
SECOND INNING: Morgan Demarest groundout to second, Kyle McCann groundout to second, Haley Ogle groundout to short.
THIRD INNING: Sara Hickman strikeout, Monica McFarland walk, Jennifer Buswell strikeout, Cossin flyout to right.
FOURTH INNING: Dempsey flyout to third, Harris strikeout, Demarest strikeout.
FIFTH INNING: McCann strikeout, Ogle groundout to short, Hickman lineout to second.
_ FRANK PASTOR