TAMPA — They played. . . and played . . . and played.
Finally, at 12:50 a.m. on Wednesday — five hours and 34 minutes after the teams started their Class 8A region semifinal — Sickles outlasted Plant City 2-1 in a 19-inning marathon.
Perhaps it was fitting the Gryphons had to play so long to advance to Friday’s region finale against Lakewood Ranch. Sickles (22-7) had not won at the semifinal stage in nine years, when it shut out Gaither 13-0.
Sophomore second baseman Annalise Santiago was only 7 in 2010 when that happened, and it was her bloop single over the Plant City third baseman’s head with two outs in the 19th that scored pinch-runner Ally Hulme from third with the winning run.
“It feels amazing. . . . beyond amazing," Santiago said. “I felt really comfortable (on the final at-bat) and I was like, ‘That’s a pitch I like. It was the one.’"
The game was one of attrition. Three pitchers — Sickles starter Robyn Herron and reliever and winner Natalie Zweig, and Plant City’s Ashley Blessin — combined to throw 512 pitches (355 strikes, 157 balls).
Herron went the first 16 innings and was replaced after 218 pitches. The Sickles pair allowed nine Plant City hits.
Blessin, a Marshall commit who struck out more than 1,000 batters in her career, went the distance for Plant City (20-5), which had won a region semifinal the past two years. The senior right-hander threw a career-high 249 pitches (196 strikes), struck out 29, recorded first-pitch strikes to 52 of 70 batters, allowed 12 hits and walked three (two intentional). The two runs she allowed were unearned as both Plant City errors proved costly.
“It was one heck of a softball game," Sickles coach Al Bowman said. “It was wearing everybody down. You’ve got to respect both teams. Somebody was going to make a mistake, (and) somebody was going to come through sooner or later. I was glad it was us."
Sickles’ Sadie Weld led off the 19th by reaching on a throwing error on the Plant City shortstop. Hulme entered as a pinch-runner, and moved to second on a Molly Reid single. Reese Wimberly sacrificed both runners up a base. After Herron flew out to left, Santiago hit the first pitch she saw over the third baseman’s head to end the game.
“(Sickles) got to go to the second pitcher, and we didn’t have anybody (else)," said Plant City coach Gary Blessin, Ashley’s father. “(Her 249 pitches) were too many."
Plant City never scored after taking a 1-0 first-inning lead as Kelli McAvoy’s bases-loaded fielder’s choice grounder to short got Abbie DeWeese home.
Sickles tied the score in the fourth on a one-out triple to right by Kamryn Jackson (three hits), who scored on the play when the Plant City rightfielder’s throw eluded the second baseman on a relay for an error.
Both teams squandered several scoring opportunities in extra innings. Plant City left runners on second and third in the 15th and 18th. Sickles stranded runners on second and third in the ninth, 15th and 16th innings.
Sickles athletic director Greg Lewandowski said the game did not have a time curfew because it was a regional game.
Twice during the contest, umpires delayed action. The first stoppage came at 11:25 p.m. when officials said they needed a break (nine minutes). After the 18th inning at 12:34 a.m., another five-minute delay took place in a meeting involving the three umpires, both coaches and school officials.
Lewandowski said the meeting focused on the home-plate umpire, who appeared to be getting fatigued. The Sickles AD said one option discussed was that if the game went beyond 1 a.m., the contest would possibly be completed by only two umpires. After the game, Lewandowski also told Sickles’ players that they were allowed to miss the first three classes of school Wednesday.
“We had an advantage (in pitching),’’ Bowman said. “(Plant City) has probably has one of the best pitchers in the state. We had more of it. (Ashley Blessin) held her own, but she did start to wear down. The pitches she was making earlier in the game, she was struggling (at the end) and that worked to our advantage."