ROCKLEDGE — "Guys, we're the best team in the state!"
So exclaimed Catie Harris as she and her teammates on the Windermere Little League Softball 12-Year-Old All-Star team triumphantly walked off the diamond Sunday afternoon in Rockledge.
She was right — an athletic catch by shortstop Olivia Lovins ended the 2015 Florida State Championship Game, giving the girls from Windermere a 5-1 victory over Keystone Little League. The win made the girls state champions, advancing the team to the Little League Softball Southeast Regional Tournament in Warner Robins, Georgia, this week.
After Windermere had dominated its competition in the District 14 and Section 5 tournaments over the past few weeks, Sunday's win was the most decisive of the state tournament. In two pool play contests, Windermere held on for thrilling 3-2 wins over Cape Coral and Palmetto.
It was a quite the change for head coach Neal Harris Jr.'s team to win by just six runs combined over the course of all three games, but one he and his other coaches — Ken Janata and Greg Scalzo — had tried hard to prepare the girls for.
“We practice hard for every tournament, like (our opponents) are going to be the best teams in the state. So that’s how we came into it," Harris explained. "These other teams we played were excellent, they were really good teams. ...
“It’s a testament to our girls for battling on those close games."
Pitching in all three games and allowing a combined five runs for Windermere was Holly Heath — nicknamed "Hollywood" by teammates and supporters. Heath, who recorded a no-hitter and a shutout during the Section 5 Tournament at Oviedo Little League last weekend, perhaps felt the raised level of play more profoundly than any of her teammates, rose to the occasion in all three games.
Most notably in the opening game on Saturday against Cape Coral, Heath managed to pitch her way out of several jams that — had they gone Cape Coral's way — could have ended Windermere's state title hopes after just one game.
“She’s just got nerves of steel," Harris said of his ace pitcher. "We had, yesterday, bases loaded twice with no outs and she just stuck in there. That’s her pitching and that’s also the defense behind her — she knows that she can throw strikes and that she has a defense behind her that’s going to support her."
Heath benefitted from the team's biggest scoring-output of the tournament from her teammates when she needed it most on Sunday, with Windermere making the most of walks and some timely hits to take a lead in the second inning that it would not surrender.
Jada Novoa drove in the first run of the game on a bloop infield single and Chrissy Fleming drew a walk with bases-loaded to put Windermere up 2-0. Novoa would drive in another run, as would Cayla Wilder and Lexi Scalzo.
“They had good at-bats because they’re smart softball players," Harris said.
The field in Georgia will include teams from the Peach State, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. The midweek, short-notice travel arrangements are just part of the deal for the local families, with Harris joking afterward that he hopes he still has a job when the tournament run concludes.
“It’s unbelievable the sacrifices these parents have to make to get these girls traveling," Harris said. "Rain delays, hotels — it’s a big sacrifice."
Chicago-bound teammate departs as state champion
The hugs between teammates continued after the girls had been presented with their state championship banner and took the customary lap around the field with it, but were of a more bittersweet nature.
One teammate, Lily Anderson, will not be joining the team in Georgia. Anderson's father, Joel, took a job in the Windy City earlier this summer and he and Lily's mom, Jill, made the move north on July 4. Lily has been staying with teammates' families and her grandparents' locally throughout the team's tournament run so far, but will now go to join her family in its new home — departing on top.
"It's a great way for her to leave, as a state champ," Jill Anderson said.
Tournament run brings back memories for coach
Seeing his daughter and her teammates carry the state championship banner around the field at Rockledge Little League must have been a little nostalgic for head coach Neal Harris Jr.
Harris was part of a team from Altamonte Springs Little League that, in 1984, won the Senior Little League World Series for boys 16-and-under.
Though the girls have a tournament between them and the 2015 Little League Softball World Series, Harris made sure to impart some wisdom from experience on the team as they continue along their journey.
“It’s unbelievable — I actually brought out my World Series ring to explain to them that it’s the most unbelievable feeling in the world," Harris said. "(I told them) 'You’ll remember this for the rest of your life.' It’s pretty cool to be able to coach my daughter and think back about all the stuff I did as a player."