VERO BEACH —Academy at the Lakes waited two weeks to play in the Class 2A state softball tournament in hopes of winning what has been an elusive title.
The Wildcats completed the first task Monday, cruising to a mercy-rule win over Fort Pierce John Carroll that lasted just four innings.
That put Academy at the Lakes in the title game for the first time.
Once again, the Wildcats had to wait to be crowned champions thanks to the weather and a pair of powerful pitching performances in what became an epic duel in a marathon game.
In the 11th inning, AATL shortstop Brooke Blankenship singled with two outs, then came home on a single by Alexis Kilfoyl for what turned out to be the only run in a 1-0 victory over Aucilla Christian.
"The field conditions were lousy, but the teams were awesome," AATL coach Diane Stephenson said. "One team just needed a break, and we got it."
Rain fell intermittently at Vero Beach’s Historic Dodgertown on Tuesday, turning the fields into a quagmire. Umpires halted play six times to send the grounds crew out to rake and pour dirt in spots where puddles formed around the players’ feet.
Mud was smeared across the white pants of both teams. The wet and sloppy conditions made things tough for batters.
The struggles also had a lot to do with who was on the mound.
Kilfoyl, an Alabama commit, is ranked as the nation’s top pitching prospect in the class of 2019 by FloSoftball. Aucilla Christian’s Elizabeth Hightower is a Florida signee who led her team to state titles in two of the past three seasons.
The two took turns sending batters back to the dugout, which led to a stretch of zeroes on the scoreboard.
Kilfoyl was able to conquer the elements and the opposing lineup because she had prepared for these situations. Whenever it is raining during Kilfoyl’s pitching lessons, she will head outside with her coach to throw.
"I basically tried not to let the rain affect me and did what I know I can do," Kilfoyl said.
The junior ace got out of two jams in the seventh and eighth innings to extend the game. Blankenship, a freshman who has already committed to FSU, helped Kilfoyl out by making several big plays in the field. Twice, Blankenship scooped the ball and whipped it to first, preventing would-be base hits. But her biggest play was a leaping catch in the eighth inning with two runners on and two outs that kept the Wildcats alive.
Kilfoyl finished with a four-hit shutout and had 13 strikeouts.
Hightower was equally efficient, allowing four hits and striking out 15.
Two of those hits proved costly.
With two outs in the 11th, Blankenship singled to start the rally.
"I knew our defense had them," Blankenship said. "All we had to do was score. (Hightower) is a great pitcher, but we kind of picked up what she doing, moving in and out. Coach saw the catcher shifting inside so I heard, ‘Turn on it’, and I just saw the ball and made contact."
One batter later, Kilfoyl singled past a diving defender, allowing Blankenship to score.
"I was surprised at first because I honestly didn’t think she dove for it so I thought Brooke was going to end up on second or third. Once I saw the ball go past her and I was on second, it was one of the greatest feelings in the world."
All that was left was to get three more outs.
Kilfoyl did just, retiring the side to set off a raucous celebration with soaked teammates.
Afterward, the players huddled by some picnic tables near the dugout for a final team meeting.
"We won the last game," Stephenson said. "We’re all bonded together. This is something you’ll remember forever. You’re 2018 state champions."