The high came two years ago, the low in 2016.
But from start to finish, this has been the ideal pace for the Oakleaf softball team.
The Knights (28-2) make their third trip to the state semifinals when they face Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (21-9) in the Class 8A final four on Friday at 4:05 p.m. at Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach.
It almost feels like a full circle for Oakleaf.
The Knights struggled most of the 2015 season before catching fire in the district tournament and reaching their first state semifinal. In 2016, there were a boatload of expectations and being ranked as the nation’s No. 1 team by MaxPreps boosted those through the roof.
But Oakleaf hit a roadblock in the regional finals at Strawberry Crest, giving up a five-run third inning and losing 6-4 in an uneven performance that has served as the launching point to 2017. The fact that the state semifinal comes against Aquinas, the last team to thoroughly beat Oakleaf — 11-3 at last year’s Kissimmee Klassic — helps finish the circle.
The only thing left is to complete the task. Only one softball team from Clay County has won a fast-pitch state championship, Clay in 2001.
“I keep telling them this: I think that we were David two years ago and Goliath last year,” said Oakleaf coach Christina Thompson. “This year, we are neither David, nor Goliath. Last year was a major upset for us. Even in that Strawberry Crest game, we just had one bad inning. We really stressed this year to eliminate that big inning, keep our opponent close and try to win every inning.”
Pitcher Kelsey Sweatt said that Oakleaf has used pieces of the last few seasons as the basis for 2017, including that Strawberry Crest loss. Instead of looking at the big picture or the finish line, the Knights view every pitch, every ground ball, every swing, as a snapshot toward their greater goal.
“We went into the season wanting to win every inning or at least tie an inning, every game,” Sweatt said. “It was trusting the process and working a little bit harder every day. In the past, maybe we weren’t trusting the process or knew what it meant to work hard every rep. Every rep this year, there hasn’t been a practice we’ve taken off. We treat every team like they’re the best team in Florida.”
Oakleaf has been on a blistering pace, winning 24 consecutive games since a 4-0 loss to West Orange on March 4, a game that Thompson said helped “incentivize” things for the Knights.
Oakleaf has used the area’s most dominant arm in Sweatt, the Times-Union’s reigning player of the year, and a wicked defense to pulverize teams in the postseason. The Knights have not allowed a run in their final five games — three in the playoffs, two in the district tournament — and have committed just two errors in that span. Teams have gotten runners on base, but they haven’t moved in those games (stranded 17 runners).
Sweatt is currently riding a 51-consecutive inning scoreless streak.
As for the bats, those, too, have continued at full speed. Ten players are hitting .300 or better. Angela Agurkis, Rebecca Koskey and Mika Garcia have combined to hit 13 home runs for the Knights.
“It was really cool to have that national ranking, and don’t get me wrong, it’s still a big deal,” Thompson said. “But there’s not as much pressure now. The ranking is nice, but that’s not our goal. We don’t ever talk about it. We only talk about who we are facing next. That’s what we discuss, that’s what we care about.”