VERO BEACH — There have been different heroes at the plate every game during the Crystal River softball team’s postseason run, so it made perfect sense that new ones emerged in Thursday’s Class 6A state semifinal victory against Rockledge.
The Pirates (20-6) bunted their way to a pair of runs in the sixth inning for a 2-0 win over the Raiders to reach Friday’s title game against Sebring (26-2) at 12:35 p.m.
"Our mantra has been one game at a time. We’re very happy to be in the position that we are in and very humbled to be in the position we are in and glad to be here," second-year Pirate head coach Deon Copeland said. "These girls have earned the right to be here. Today they left everything on the field. Ever since districts they have left everything they have on the field. We look forward to tomorrow and our plan is to do what we’ve done. Come out here and play Pirate ball."
Locked in a scoreless tie in the top of the sixth, the Pirate rally started with a Tiyahnna Hopkins sharp one-out single up the middle. A bunt by Cara Hardy that was bobbled by Raider freshman pitcher Kylah Berry put runners on first and second with one out. Gracie Ping was sent to the plate as a pinch-hitter with one job — get down a bunt to move both runners into scoring position. She did just that and nearly beat it out for a hit.
"Gracie Ping is a very good bunter and she laid it down perfectly and almost beat it out," Copeland said.
With runners at second and third with two outs the Raiders intentionally walked Mady Black to load the bases. Emma Ward was given the bunt sign and she delivered a perfect one that Berry fielded and flipped late to home as Hopkins slid in safely for the game’s first run.
"I was just thinking any way to get on and move the runners. When my coach told me to bunt I knew that I had to lay it down and just run as fast as I could to first to be safe," Ward said. "All I heard was running and then everyone was yelling and I saw Tiyahnna get up and then she was called safe. That’s all I knew."
The Raider defense still seemed stunned and when Amber Morton pushed an excellent bunt past the pitching circle, there was no play to be made and Hardy easily scored to make it a 2-0 game.
"She was an outstanding pitcher. A lot of movement on her ball," Copeland said of Berry. "Some of our players were struggling to get the bat on it early on, so that inning we decided to play some small ball, put the ball down and were able to capitalize on getting girls on base and on a couple of their miscues."
The Raiders had a pair of singles to start the seventh inning, but Pirate senior pitcher Jaden Vickers made a great play on a bunt to throw the lead runner out at third, recorded her 14th strikeout of the game and then induced a groundball that shortstop Alyssa Hamilton fired over to first for the final out.
"I knew that one run didn’t matter. I was more confident that we didn’t have just one run, we had two runs so they had to work harder," Vickers said of the last inning.
After walking the first batter of the game, Vickers settled in and was her usual spectacular self, finishing off a four-hit shutout with two walks and the 14 strikeouts. She has not allowed a run the past 21 innings.
"I don’t generally get nervous, but I’m not going to lie, I think the first time feeling that stage, I was like there’s a lot on the table and I don’t want to crack under pressure," she said.
As for Friday’s opponent, Sebring?
"I don’t really know anything about them. We’re going to look at stats tonight and see if I can find any video," Vickers said.
Hopkins and Hardy each had two hits for the Pirates, while Ward and Morton drove in runs with their bunts.
Berry stuck out 13 for the Raiders (20-9) and allowed two runs on eight hits and two walks in the loss.