VERO BEACH — In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the Crystal River softball team went from six outs away from a state championship to trailing Sebring by two runs.
The Blue Streaks exploded for three runs in the sixth inning of the Class 6A State Championship game Friday to take a 3-1 lead on the Pirates. Thanks to masterful pitching down the stretch by Maci Barnhart, that lead held up as the Pirates took runner-up honors with a 3-1 defeat.
Crystal River finished the season 20-7, with just the second Final Four appearance in school history (1997) and first trip to the title game. Sebring ended an outstanding campaign 27-2 and were worthy 6A champs.
“We talked that one run wasn’t going to be enough against this team. They definitely have a lot of hitters on their team and put the ball in play,” Crystal River head coach Deon Copeland said. “In the sixth inning they were able to put the ball in play on us a little bit and manufacture some runs. I think as a team we prevented the things you can prevent, that’s walks and errors. My team stood up defensively.
“There’s only one team in the state in 6A that doesn’t want to be in our shoes, and that’s Sebring. The rest of them are wishing they could be in our spot. The girls played an outstanding game, had an outstanding season. They represented themselves, Crystal River High School and Citrus County very well. I’m definitely proud to be part of this team.”
Both teams put runners on base the first two innings, but no runners crossed home plate.
That would change in the bottom of the third inning thanks to the speed and softball IQ of Pirate junior catcher Caliann Rogers.
After striking out her first at-bat, Rogers dropped down a bunt that Sebring pitcher Maci Barnhart bobbled for what was scored an error, although Rogers may have been able to beat a clean throw to first.
Alyssa Hamilton dropped down a bunt of her own to sacrifice Rogers to second and then the Pirate saw an opening. Rogers stole third and raced home for a 1-0 lead when the throw from the Blue Streak catcher went into the outfield.
“I wasn’t making good contact with the ball because of her spin, so I knew I needed to put it down and get on,” Rogers said. “When I got to second, I realized the third baseman was all the way up and the shortstop wasn’t going to beat me (to the base), so I just ran as fast as I could. I looked back and saw the left fielder didn’t have any play on it, so that’s when I went home.”
That 1-0 lead held up through five innings thanks to some spectacular play in the field by the Pirates. Hamilton turned a double play to end the second inning, Jaden Vickers struck out the side in the third and Emma Ward made a great running catch near the fence in the fourth that likely saved a run.
Everything changed in the top of the sixth inning.
After the inning began with a harmless groundout, Sebring speedy leadoff hitter Johneisha Rowe dropped down a perfect bunt and reached first without a throw. She bolted for second on the very next pitch and Emily Bible smacked a double in the gap to easily score Rowe with the tying run. A sacrifice bunt put Bible on third and she scored on a base hit by Alyssa Perez, who went to second later in the inning on a Pirate error. Layla Taylor was intentionally walked to put a force out in play at any bag with two outs, but Kiara Delgado delivered the fourth hit of the inning to chase Perez home with the third run of the frame. A groundout ended the inning, but the damage had been done.
And while the Blue Streaks came alive on offense, the Pirate batters were having fits with Barnhart, who didn’t allow a runner to reach base after Rogers in the third inning. Barnhart finished with a no-hitter and 12 strikeouts. She struck out seven of the final 10 batters she faced, mostly with nasty rise balls and change-ups.
“She definitely had us off-balance with her rise ball,” Hamilton said. “We just couldn’t come up with the hits that we needed. We got a run that one inning, but just couldn’t keep it going.
“Definitely take a lot of pride in the season. Today we just couldn’t produce the at-bat that we needed. But I wouldn’t take back a single thing about this season.”
Vickers closed out her brilliant career with 10 strikeouts.
“It’s an accomplishment. I feel like it’s not good enough, but we made it here. It’s a great team. We came together, fought to the end and I’m very proud to be a part of this team,” she said. “I was able to get all my jitters out the first game. This game I was a lot more confident, it just didn’t happen.”
Sebring coach Joe Sinness said they didn’t know a lot about Vickers entering the game but have confidence in their lineup against anyone.
“The little bit that we knew was just what we saw yesterday. She’s a heckuva pitcher and we have not faced a lot of lefties,” he said. “I have a lineup where it’s going to be tough getting through us three times without us putting the ball in play. We were able to do that and the ball just bounced our way. We just came out on the winning side today. Out of 10 games, it might be .500. These teams were evenly matched.”
The Pirates had great fan support the entire postseason and that was on display again the two games at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach.
“It’s the best feeling in the world, when you have all your fans coming and supporting you and then our whole school watched the game at school on the TVs,” Rogers said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better team.”
Rogers will be one of the senior leaders next season, after the Pirates lose a strong quartet to graduation.
“You have four completely different types of players and people. The four of them together were solid. You’re talking about Aleeah Ashmeal, Jaden Vickers, Mady Black and Alyssa Hamilton. That’s four of the infielders and they’re going to be missed,” Copeland said. “They bring leadership and just a total understanding of the game for us. Hopefully they’ve been able to mold and develop the girls underneath them throughout the years and they will step up and take their place to keep building this program at Crystal River High School.”
The Pirates join the 1997 Citrus High School team as state runner-up finishers from the county. The Hurricanes finished second that year in Class 5A, the same season the Pirates went to the Final Four in 4A. Lecanto won the 4A title the year before in 1996.