Softball: Freedom 2 victories from title
The past two weeks have been historic for the Freedom High softball team.
Until this season, no team in the program's 10-year existence had advanced to the postseason. Reaching the district tournament semifinals was the height of their success.
But here they are, with a 21-3 record and two wins away from claiming the Class 7A state championship.
“They work hard every day and they deserve this,” said Freedom coach Autum Hernandez, now in her fifth season. “They come to practice ready to work every day and they work as a team.”
The Patriots play Tallahassee Chiles in the 7A state semifinals tonight at 7 at the Vero Beach Sports Village. The winner will face Harmony or Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas in the state championship Thursday at 7:05 p.m.
So, how is it that a team with absolutely no playoff experience reaches the state final four?
“Pure heart,” assistant coach Ashley Alpizar said. “Pure heart.”
In the region quarterfinals at Countryside, the fourth-ranked team in 7A, Freedom won 2-0. In the past three years, only two other teams had shut out Countryside. Then, through three days of weather postponements, the Patriots upset sixth-ranked Chamberlain, the defending region and 7A state champion, 4-2.
On Saturday in the region final at Sarasota, a team riding its own magic dust, the Patriots were trailing 1-0 and their season seemed over. But in the top of the seventh, Freedom scored five runs, sparked by a grand slam by senior Caroline Whiteside.
“We know how good we are,” senior pitcher and first baseman Katlin Hall said. “I think we were underestimated, but we're definitely proving ourselves because we're in the final four while everyone else is at home.”
The Patriots didn't reach the state final four on luck alone. There were some adjustments along the way.
Midway through the regular season, Hernandez and Alpizar decided to move junior outfielders Ashley Wilson (22 hits, 19 runs, 20 RBIs) and Rachel Carlson (29 hits, 26 runs, 22 RBIs) to the bottom of the batting order to give the team some offensive stability. It was Wilson and Carlson who helped kick-start late rallies against Countryside and Sarasota.
Since the start of the district tournament, Hernandez has started sophomore Grace Street on the mound, only to switch to Hall around the fourth inning. Street is 9-0 on the mound and owns 44 strikeouts with a 1.06 ERA through 66 innings. Hall is 9-3 with two saves and has a 0.94 ERA with 43 strikeouts.
Street and Hall are also two of the team's top hitters and are tied with a team-high 30 hits. Hall's younger sister, Maddy, who as a freshman is the team's starting catcher, adds a .368 batting average with 28 hits and 26 runs and a team-best 10 stolen bases.
“We're a closely knit team,” Street said. “We back each other up, no matter what. That just creates teamwork. It's good chemistry as a team and that's what makes us great.”