NEW PORT RICHEY - Last season, River Ridge coach Ernie Beck wondered if his team could return to state. He had more questions about a third run this season.
Nonetheless, the two-time state finalists have a third straight shot at an elusive championship.
During the past two seasons, Beck has had to replace 11 seniors, but the lone senior he'll lose after this season might be the primary reason for the Royal Knights' three state berths: pitcher Kiki Von Holt.
"I would say last year was a major surprise," Beck said. "Now we're 5A (River Ridge advanced to the Class 4A state tournament twice before moving up a class this season). But we still have Kiki, so you know we're going to be in it."
Von Holt has been the Knights' ace for 21/2 seasons (she and Christine Beck, the coach's daughter, split duties during Von Holt's sophomore season). The winningest pitcher in school history (55) rarely displays emotion on the mound, but she cannot hide her burning desire for a state title.
"I want (a championship) a lot," Von Holt said, "and this is the last time I can get it. I'm hoping to go out with a bang."
For that to happen, Von Holt (22-2, 0.74 ERA, 223 strikeouts) must improve on a 2-2 state series mark. She pitched River Ridge to semifinal wins in 2002 and 2003 but lost back-to-back state finals (1-0 in 2002 and 2-1 in 2003) to Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas.
Also making their third consecutive trips to state for the Knights are centerfielder Stephanie Seaman and third baseman Janet Houck. Seaman averages .461 and has 29 runs as the leadoff hitter. Houck, who bats third, is hitting .321 with 27 runs and 14 RBIs.
And both are solid fielders. Seaman made a diving catch to preserve a 4-3 win over Lake Region in a region quarterfinal, and Houck has been solid since moving in from rightfield to replace Kelly Lamb, out for the season with mononucleosis.
Infielders Shauna Ward, Meghan Chaple and Deanna Kiesel, catcher Danielle Denney, and rightfielder Christina Karl also have contributed to the state run.