DUNEDIN — It's hard to believe that we'll see a more emotional, more exciting game than this one throughout the rest of the postseason.
Top seed Tarpon Springs and No. 2 Boca Ciega were fearless with the Class 6A-9 title on the line Wednesday night. When push came to shove, Pirate pitcher Alanah Rivera pushed harder, propelling Bogie to a thrilling come-from-behind 7-6 victory.
"We just got it done," the sophomore fireballer said with a smile after the game. "We left it out on the field."
Actually, the Dunedin diamond had trouble containing Rivera.
After Tarpon (17-5) took a quick, first-inning lead on Kelsi Jeffries' RBI double and Mackensie Smith's run-scoring grounder, Rivera started reversing the momentum with a solo home run ("It was my pitch, a fastball up," she said) to start the fourth inning. Back-to-back doubles from Carmen Perez and Kaylee Erickson followed to draw the Pirates (19-9) within one.
"We have a lot of fight in us," said Bogie coach Robin Little. "We're a young team (with just two seniors) but we don't give up."
The Pirates increased the pressure in the top of the fifth when No. 9 hitter Lacey Keane was hit by a pitch, Mia Blasingane (two doubles) singled and Nayeli Rodriguez walked to load the bases with no outs. Spongers coach Hannah Gatley swapped freshman starter Phoebe Howard for hard-throwing senior Jenna Wojnar to face Rivera, but her first offering ended up sizzling under the rightfield scoreboard for a grand slam and a 6-2 lead.
"There was a lot of pressure so I had to look for first-pitch strikes," Rivera said. "The bases were loaded and I had to be ready."
"You just look at Alanah and you can tell she loves the game," Little said. "She pumps the team up, especially as a sophomore; she's a team leader."
As the next batter up, Perez proved just as ready as Rivera, taking the first pitch she saw over the right-centerfield fence for what would be a crucial insurance run.
From there, Rivera (seven hits, eight strikeouts, one walk) turned aggressive in the circle, getting her defense involved in retiring 12 of 14 batters she faced going into the bottom of the seventh.
But after struggling for offense, Tarpon came to life. Hunter Ruch had a one-out bunt single and Jeffries reached for the third time on the night with a walk. Following Rivera and Perez' game plan, Devyn Howard hacked on the first pitch and blasted a towering drive off the top of the rightfield fence and out to get the Spongers within a run.
"We were still in it, still fighting … no more, no less," said Gatley. "We knew this was a tough road."
But Rivera buckled down, shaking off an infield error to fan two Tarpon batters swinging and set off a Bogie celebration.
"We talked about last year when we beat Tarpon twice in the regular season and they came back and beat us in the playoffs," Rivera said. "We just had to be ready, rebuild and work hard."
In defeat, Gatley was proud of her team's persistence.
"For me, yes (I was proud). For them, probably not. I just hope they find the positives from (this game), realize they don't want to feel like this again, come out and fight."
Both teams will open region play next Wednesday.