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How'd they get here? A look at River Ridge's run to the Class 5A state tournament

Updated: Dec 15, 2023



Welcome to state tournament week. Seven Tampa Bay area teams have punched their tickets to play in the 2023 FHSAA Softball State Championships in their respective classes, up from six in each of the past two seasons.


At Bay Made Fastpitch, instead of a traditional game preview article that doesn’t tell the full story of a team’s season, we put together a unique piece of preview content that shows that full body of work. It showcases our coverage of these teams all season long, while previewing the state championship series slate.


You’ll see what we mean as we go along.


We start the morning with the first half of the Class 5A State Semifinal in River Ridge, which is set to take on Parrish Community in a battle of two Bay Made Fastpitch Elite Invitational teams. The Royal Knights are in their first state tournament since 2004 and enter Wednesday’s game against the Bulls 20-8 and on a nine-game winning streak.


FEBRUARY


2/22 – Cypress Creek – W, 3-2 (1-0)

2/28 – Sunlake – W, 17-0 (2-0)


A solid start to the season for River Ridge. Cypress Creek would end up being a thorn in its side (see: district semifinal) and the Coyotes took a 1-0 lead into the fifth inning before MacKenzie Vozdecky’s bases-clearing double in the fifth inning. Caitlin Blankenship and Sophie Johnson would homer in the four-inning win over Sunlake and Jayda Smith struck out 11 in a one-hit effort.


MARCH


3/2 – Land O’Lakes – L, 4-1 (2-1)

3/7 – at Calvary Christian – L, 7-6 (2-2)


Two starkly different games against two state tournament qualifiers. Against Land O’Lakes, River Ridge just couldn’t figure out Aliana Mercado and allowed four unearned runs, then the bats struck for six, which appeared to be enough until Calvary Christian struck for three in the seventh to walk it off.


3/9 – at Pasco – W, 4-1 (3-2)

3/10 – at Hudson – W, 10-0 (4-2)


River Ridge’s biggest question heading into the 2023 season was: how could the Royal Knights survive in the circle after graduating Jordan Sheets and Tori Nearing? Well, Smith answered the bell. Her complete game two-hitter with 13 strikeouts against Pasco turned out to be a bit of a preview of what she would bring to the table.


3/15 – Durant – W, 6-1 (5-2) // Bay Made Fastpitch Elite Invitational

3/16 – Steinbrenner – L, 3-2 (5-3) // Bay Made Fastpitch Elite Invitational

3/17 – Bloomingdale – W, 8-7 (6-3) // Bay Made Fastpitch Elite Invitational

3/17 – Lake Region – L, 10-5 (6-4) // Bay Made Fastpitch Elite Invitational


A hit here and a hit there could’ve sent River Ridge on a crash course for a rematch with Calvary Christian in the Elite Invitational’s semifinals, but alas, they fell to Steinbrenner and could not figure out the tandem of Lilly Patton and Saige Sampson.


Honestly, there were a lot of good takeaways for River Ridge to come out of Spring Break with. Their fight to claw back from a 6-1 deficit against Bloomingdale – they overcame seven unearned runs – was a bright spot and although they would’ve liked to beat them for a second straight year, River Ridge held its own against Lake Region, getting home runs from Blankenship and Taryn Newton, before the Thunder broke it open with four in the seventh. A second straight 2-2 showing at the Elite Invitational gave a lot of clarity heading into a pivotal three-game stretch.


3/21 – Mitchell – W, 15-0 (7-4)


Oh, okay.


Four days after the Elite Invite wraps up, Johnson homers twice, Vozdecky homered, Blankenship went yard and Lillian Jackson sent one out to make quite the statement.


3/23 – at Wiregrass Ranch – W, 2-0 (8-4)3/28 – at Osceola – W, 6-1 (9-4)


This feels like the stretch where Smith really started to take the reins as the Royal Knights’ ace. The senior threw a two-hit shutout of Wiregrass Ranch, then threw five strong innings of four-hit softball against an Osceola team that had also just hung 15 on Mitchell.


3/31 – East Lake – L, 4-2 (9-5) // Leopard Slam

3/31 – Sickles – L, 5-1 (9-6) // Leopard Slam


APRIL


4/1 – at Hernando – L, 5-4 (9-7) // Leopard Slam

4/1 – Nature Coast Tech – W, 11-1 (10-7) // Leopard Slam


River Ridge’s showing at Leopard Slam was confusing, at best, but we’ve got to look a little deeper than the surface level here. East Lake got hot and ended up winning the tournament, then Sickles was in the midst of a five-game winning streak with a win over Robinson and Land O’Lakes and the Gryphons were on their first game of the day, instead of their second, like River Ridge.


Smith probably threw one too many pitches to Hannah Taylor, who homered twice in the loss to Hernando.


While it looked like an appropriate time to sound the alarm and possibly panic, it also wasn’t? It felt like River Ridge just couldn’t catch a break or have the ball bounce its way in Brooksville.


4/4 – at Gulf – W, 18-0 (11-7)

4/6 – at Wesley Chapel – L, 3-2, 12 inn. (11-8)


In a preview of May’s district final, River Ridge, for whatever reason, could not figure Wesley Chapel sophomore Jordan Ankers out. Head coach Kurt Goluba will tell you that his side certainly had their chances in that game and just could not find a way to capitalize. But, perhaps it was a good thing that they didn’t win that one. We’ll get to that in a bit.


4/11 – Countryside – W, 5-0 (12-8)

4/12 – at Anclote – W, 22-0 (13-8)

4/18 – Fivay – W, 22-2 (14-8)

4/20 – at Mitchell – W, 9-5 (15-8)


All in all, a solid finish to the regular season. The Royal Knights wrapped up Sunshine Athletic Conference play by sweeping the western schools in emphatic fashion and securing a regular season sweep of traditional rival Mitchell made things even sweeter. Winners of four straight after the loss to Wesley Chapel, they could take some time off before the postseason started.


MAY


5/2 – No. 3 Cypress Creek – W, 4-2 (16-8) // Class 5A-District 7 Semifinal


Remember how we mentioned that Cypress Creek would be a thorn in River Ridge’s side?


The .500 Coyotes, which needed to win the 5A-7 tournament to advance to the regional playoffs, gave the Royal Knights quite the time. They tied it in the third and the fifth before Newton brought in Johnson and Smith brought in Newton to give River Ridge the lead and some insurance for Smith to finish a complete game.


And as they entered their final district tournament, we also took the time to realize how important this senior class is to Goluba and the program, in general.


“One of them is my daughter [Emma]. That makes a difference. I’ve watched them all grow up and most of them, as freshmen, came on the team as varsity players. Caitlin, and Jayda – she pitched a varsity game for me as a freshman – you’ve got Emma, she was on JV for a couple years, then she came up. Sophie, she’s been amazing, one of the bigger surprises, I mean, I see her when she comes and tries out and she walks on the field and says she’s a catcher, I’m like, ‘you scrawny little thing, you can’t catch,’ but she’s got one of the strongest arms I’ve ever seen and hits some of the furthest balls I’ve ever seen. Just a great group of kids. They all have a special place in my heart,” Goluba said.


5/3 – No. 1 Wesley Chapel – W, 6-5 (17-8) // Class 5A-District 7 Final


Not even a month later and River Ridge was back on the field and facing the team they went 12 innings with. This time, they tagged Ankers for six runs with the help of a Jackson home run and the Royal Knights held off a late-inning Wildcat rally to capture the district championship and earning the right to host the first round of the playoffs.


5/11 – No. 6 Seminole – W, 10-2 (18-8) // Class 5A-Region 2 Quarterfinal


River Ridge earned the No. 3 seed in the region and hung three in the first, three in the fifth and four in the sixth to coast to a victory over the Warhawks. Jackson went yard for the second time in as many games and Johnson sent another over the fence, while Smith struck out 12 in a complete game two-hitter on 102 pitches.


5/16 – No. 7 Pasco – W, 6-4 (19-8) // Class 5A-Region 2 Semifinal


While they might have expected a rematch with Wesley Chapel, the Pirates upset the Wildcats in the quarterfinals after Pasco earned the right to host the opening round by winning their district championship. It wasn’t going to be an easy victory for River Ridge, as Pasco was motivated to continue making history. They battled to a scoreless draw through three, then a pair of RBI from Jacqleen Golden, Blankenship and Johnson and a 14-strikeout complete game from Smith was enough to send River Ridge through to their second consecutive region final.


5/19 – at No. 1 Auburndale – W, 3-1 (20-8) // Class 5A-Region 2 Final


Sophomore Lauren Kreshon’s second home run of the year, a two-run blast in the third inning must’ve sent shockwaves through the atmosphere, because shortly after, the sky opened up and River Ridge entered a long rain delay with the Bloodhounds. Johnson obviously wasn’t bothered, as she went yard after play resumed.


Against a very good Auburndale lineup, Smith worked around six hits and two walks, while striking out eight on 122 pitches to send the ‘Hounds packing.


Wednesday’s start time was moved to 3:00 p.m. with possible inclement weather coming later in the afternoon. River Ridge enters the 5A State Tournament as the No. 4 seed and faces a Parrish Community team that stands at 22-3 after capturing the Region 3 crown by beating North Fort Myers, 2-0.

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