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A single run can make a big difference

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 12, 2002

The easiest job in the state this week had to be the scoreboard operator at Ed Radice Park, which made its debut as home of the state softball championships.

When River Ridge's season ended agonizingly short of the Class 4A crown with a 1-0 loss to Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas on Friday night, it continued a trend that had carried through all six classes of competition.

Sixteen of 18 games at the complex had been shutouts, and more than half of the time -- in nine games, including both semifinals and the finals in Class 4A and 3A -- there was a single run on the scoreboard.

So unmerciful was the level of competition that a single error could decide the game -- "one blink, and it's over," as one fan said after the Knights' loss.

What made the single run tougher for River Ridge was that it waited until the very last play of the season. The game's only error, following the game's only extra-base hit, set up a perfect bunt to produce that rare, elusive run.

After five innings Friday, both pitchers had held their opponents to two hits. Neither had so much as a single walk, nor had either team committed an error. By game's end, the teams had combined for two walks and a single error, an impressively clean game by high school standards under any circumstances, let alone with the enormous burden of a state crown hanging in the balance.

The lack of scoring could be taken as a sign of a dearth of solid hitters, but the glass half full option is the simple thought that championships were won with pitching and defense, a concept as novel as working hard, winning as a team or giving 110 percent.

What stood out from the three Class 4A games was how, just as often, solid pitching and defense didn't win.

Tallahassee Leon senior Erin Horn entered the tournament with a state-record 436 strikeouts, allowing one earned run all season. She struck out nine in her semifinal, allowing a single unearned run, and saw her high school career brought to an end with the same epitaph: 1-0.

A day before River Ridge lost by the same score, they had inflicted that very demise on Naples Barron Collier. Cougars pitcher Kris Schaus took a no-hitter into the fifth and a shutout into the 10th, only to lose on a play that immediately followed picking a runner off third base.

The postseason is as unforgiving as it is memorable, and in time the Knights will learn to remember this season not forhow it ended, but where. Sure, the scoreboard had more zeroes than an Alex Rodriguez paycheck, but how many teams got to find that out firsthand?

If River Ridge can learn a lesson from Friday's heartbreaking loss, it is that of persistence. The Knights were merely introduced to the state tournament this week, and if anyone can sympathize with the teary eyes and dejected, disappointed looks, it would be St. Thomas Aquinas.

This was the Raiders' fifth trip to the final four, and only once before had they so much as reached the final. Even then, they fell by the same narrow margin, 1-0.

The Raiders could easily be back next year. Their two pitchers are a junior and sophomore, the winning run was scored by a sophomore pinch-runner who batted .195, and the championship-clinching bunt was laid down by a freshman.

River Ridge, too, will have a strong cast next season. Six seniors will be gone, most notably Christine Beck, but the younger players will open next season with an asset no Knights team has ever enjoyed: the confidence that comes with winning a playoff game.

With that in mind, the 1-0 so indelibly marked in the minds of River Ridge's proud state runners-up can mean more than just the score from one game. Turn it around and take it as 0-1, a reminder of the school's record in state championship games.

As the Knights found out Friday, all it takes to change that is a single run.

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