State softball: Tampa Catholic’s 22-year wait ends in semifinals

Senior Alexa Russo and the Crusaders run into a state juggernaut that is a regular in title games.
Tampa Catholic senior Alexa Russo gets some encouraging words from athletic director Don Dziagwa moments after the Crusaders lost a Class 4A state semifinal 7-2 to Miami Westminster Christian. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)
Tampa Catholic senior Alexa Russo gets some encouraging words from athletic director Don Dziagwa moments after the Crusaders lost a Class 4A state semifinal 7-2 to Miami Westminster Christian. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)
Published May 21

VERO BEACH — Alexa Russo’s postseason experiences had always been brief.

Until this season.

Tampa Catholic (19-9), led by the play of its star shortstop, ended years of frustration by reaching the state semifinals for the first time since 1997.

After waiting four years for this moment, it appeared Russo’s first trip to the Jackie Robinson Training Complex would be over almost before it started. In the second inning, the University of Tampa signee sprinted to third base to cover on an attempted steal. She fell, clutching her knee.

Trainers and coaches tended to Russo, but she did not stay down for long. There was no way Russo was exiting this game.

The Crusaders needed her. Tampa Catholic was facing two-time defending state champion Miami Westminster Christian (24-8).

Since 2014, the Warriors have been a consistent contender, winning three state titles and advancing to the semifinals every year during that span. They entered Tuesday’s Class 4A state semifinal on a seven-game win streak, outscoring foes by a combined 83-3.

[ MORE SOFTBALL: Admiral Farragut closes in on another state title ]

Russo did her part. In the third inning, she hit a solo shot to cut the Crusaders’ deficit to 2-1. In the field, Russo made backhanded stops before firing to first to rob would-be hits.

“That kid is the toughest one out there on the field,” Tampa Catholic coach Jackie Alpizar (formerly Hirschfeld) said. “She’s a competitor, a fighter. No way (she was leaving).”

Russo’s grit comes from her baseball bloodlines. Her father, Paul, played 11 seasons (1990-2000) for the Twins, Padres, Yankees and Astros. Her brother, also named Paul, is currently in the Nationals’ minor-league system. And her uncle, Pat, played five seasons (1990-94) with the Twins, Angels, Mets and Yankees.

A few of the close calls went against Tampa Catholic in the early going against Westminster Christian, like this one with third baseman Kameryn Menendez. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)
A few of the close calls went against Tampa Catholic in the early going against Westminster Christian, like this one with third baseman Kameryn Menendez. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)

But Tuesday, the Warriors showed off their championship pedigree, winning 7-2 to reach their third straight title game.

The state title Russo wanted so badly was not just for herself.

It was also for Alpizar, who played on the school’s last fast-pitch championship team before going on to Florida State.

And it was for Alpizar’s son, Carter, born less than a month ago. Alpizar returned to coach the team in the region final and had her newborn in Vero Beach for the tournament.

[ MORE SOFTBALL: Academy at the Lakes needs just five innings to reach final ]

The Crusaders have a penchant for making furious rallies. In the district semifinals, they trailed rival Academy of the Holy Names 9-2 before scoring eight runs in the fifth inning en route to a wild 12-10 victory. In the region semifinals, Tampa Catholic came back from an early 3-0 deficit vs. Montverde to win 12-8.

It was not enough this time.

Westminster Christian added a run in the third inning and tacked on four more in the sixth.

Down 7-1, the Crusaders tried coming back. Kameryn Menendez had an RBI double. But their charmed run came to an end with a popup to the catcher.

Russo was on deck.

“We’ve always been down before and that’s been our indicator that we’ve got this,” Russo said. “I had faith in the girl in front of me to do it. Next year, they’ll go even farther. It’s a family. We’ve come closer than we ever had before. We gained a little brother so it was cool to break up the vibe of 15 girls.

“That’s our foundation. That’s what we are. We’re a family.”

Contact Bob Putnam at bputnam@tampabay.com. Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.

State softball semifinals

Jackie Robinson Training Complex, Vero Beach

Admission: $9 advance, $12 day of; parking $10.

Class 5A: Hernando vs. Coral Springs Charter, 9:50 a.m. Thursday

Class 9A: Newsome vs. Coral Gables, 7:50 p.m. Thursday

State softball finals

Class 2A: Academy at the Lakes vs. Mount Dora, 11:05 a.m. Wednesday

Class 3A: Admiral Farragut vs. Fort Pierce John Carroll, 4:35 p.m. Wednesday

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