TAMPA — It’s hard to beat Calvary Christian in a pitcher’s duel. After all, the Warriors are pounding the ball at a .441 clip as a team, averaging more than 10 runs a game.
Tampa Catholic almost did it in Friday’s Class 4A-4 district title game.
The Crusaders were cruising behind junior pitcher Olivia Mendez but a lightning-quick, four-pitch segment in the sixth inning turned the tide as Calvary Christian pulled off an emotional 2-1 comeback victory at Academy of the Holy Names.
Mendez mixed an enticing rise ball with an effective changeup to keep Warrior hitters off balance. Mendez racked up six strikeouts through five innings and was supported by exceptional defense from outfielders Emma Rodrigues and Paige Lassiter as well as shortstop Alexa Russo, who soared to her right and snagged a laser from Hannah Galloway to start the sixth inning.
But TC (17-8) squandered a pair of bases-loaded opportunities, including one with no outs in the third inning, emerging with a lone run on Grace Barkley’s first-inning, bases-loaded walk that brought home Russo (2-for-2 with a double and two walks on the night).
After Russo's robbery on Galloway, Calvary (23-3) went to work.
Leah Jarnac lashed an opposite-field double that hit the base of the rightfield fence. Hayley Eaton drilled the second pitch she saw to deep leftfield for another two-bagger that brought Jarnac in for the tying run. Then clean-up hitter Kaylin Cole rolled the first pitch she saw up the middle for a base hit that plated a hustling Eaton with the eventual game-winner.
“We settled in and we started to do what we've done all season long and that's hit,” Eaton said. “We were nervous and weren't as confident in the beginning, but, honestly, we started playing for each other and we found a way to come out on top.”
After battling with her own case of nerves (“I was amped up … maybe a little bit too much”), Warriors starter Charlotte Schultheis found her groove.
Over the final four innings, Russo was the lone Crusader to get into scoring position as Schultheis (complete-game, five-hitter with three strikeouts) was more than happy to let her able defense do its thing.
“I made a couple of iffy plays but I really, really trust the defense I have behind me,” the junior hurler said. “And (Mendez) pitched a phenomenal game but I trust our offense to pick me up when I don't have my best game.”
That defense got a nice assist from head coach Darrell Don after TC's hot start.
“We were used to the harder and faster clay fields at (the Eddie C. Moore Complex in Clearwater), but when the ball was hopping up and slowing down (on AHN’s turf diamond), we brought in our infielders, pinched the field on their slap hitters and charged the ball more. That was a good adjustment for us.”
Both teams advance to regionals starting Thursday with Don hosting a familiar opponent.
“The First Academy (of Orlando) is my old school,” he said. “I was athletic director and baseball coach there for nine years. There’s a lot of great people there; they played a tough schedule and I know they’ve got a great team.”
Tampa Catholic will travel to face District 3 champ Montverde Academy and coach Patrick Mendez likes his team’s chances.
“I’m proud of the way we came back at the end of the season, and we just held one of the best offenses in the Tampa area to two runs,” Mendez concluded. “We just couldn’t get enough runs (Friday) but we’ll stick together and be ready (for regionals). I wouldn’t want to play us right now.”