TAMPA —Friday’s game was a case of unfinished business for Academy of the Holy Names.
After seeing an 8-1 start to its 2020 campaign get waylaid due to COVID-19, the Jaguars wanted to make sure they wrung every last ounce of success out of this season.
A potent Lakeland McKeel Academy lineup, with a .377 team batting average and almost 100 extra-base hits, stood between Holy Names and a trip to the Class 3A final four. Little by little, senior pitcher Belle Sardja used pinpoint control and an effective change-up to chip away at the Wildcats’ confidence. The offense backed up her efforts, using some long ball of its own to grab control and eventually keep it.
With a commanding 5-0 victory, their 12th in a row, the Jags will move on to play 2019 state finalist Westminster Christian on Wednesday at Clermont in their first state semifinal appearance in five years.
“I had to bring my best stuff because (McKeel) is a solid hitting team,” Sardja said. “They were swinging at first pitches, so I had to come in confident, I had to have faith in all of my (pitches), but I also had to stay calm and stay humble.”
Relying on a Bible verse written in her glove — Colossians 3:23, which “basically says, you’re working for the Lord, not for man” — to keep her calm, Sardja kept the Wildcats (20-8) from stringing together hits.
McKeel did have opportunities, putting runners in scoring position in three innings and at third base in the second and fifth frames, but those chances came with two outs and Sardja (complete-game, four-hitter with six strikeouts and one walk) retired the next batter with just four total pitches. On the night, the she threw strikes on 55 of her 72 pitches.
“Belle has been doing really well recently,” said rightfielder Maisi Siglar. “I don’t understand how it’s possible how she gets better every game.”
Siglar felt she has been scuffling at the plate lately but turned that around Friday. The freshman drilled a third-inning double that came within 3 feet of clearing the centerfield fence, blasted a fourth-inning solo home run that easily soared over the leftfield wall and a leadoff walk in the sixth, scoring three times on the evening.
“(Friday) was a very big day and there was a lot of stress, so I told myself to channel that stress and it worked out really well,” Siglar said.
Power production also came from senior Rachael Petrarca, who delivered a solo homer to leftfield in the third inning, and sophomore Genevieve Chiellini with a first-inning double. Holy Names (17-5) also took advantage of shaky McKeel pitching (six walks and five wild pitches, three of which scored runs) to build its winning edge.
“Maisi led off with a big shot, and Rachael — what can you say about Rachael, she’s a leader of this team,” Jaguars coach Jeff Krone said. “They know that when Belle gets a couple of runs, she’s hard to score on.
“At the beginning of the season, we told the girls we’re going to work to win one-run games. We had one of the hardest schedules in 3A to learn to win tight games. We’re going to be mentally tough to be able to make a strong stretch run.”
And even after his role in getting Holy Names within two games of a championship, he still knew where the true credit for success belonged.
“It’s (the players), it’s all them. They’re the reason this happened.”
Region softball finals
6A: Mitchell 8, Venice 0
6A: Viera 5, Durant 0
5A: Land O’Lakes 6, Palmetto 3
4A: Hernando 4, Lake Region 3
3A: Holy Names 5, Lakeland McKeel 0
2A: Canterbury 9, Fort Myers Evangelical Christian 3
2A: Mount Dora Christian 10, Seffner Christian 0