The road to Vero Beach was not an easy one for Princeton Christian.
It had been 16 years since the Panthers earned a state tournament berth, a wait that was made even more difficult to endure after appearances in the past three Region 4-2A finals all ended with losses.
This past week, however, has made all of that seem like ancient history.
This journey has been a trying and adventurous one for us, Princeton Christian coach Marcel Piz said. These girls deserve a lot of credit, and they just have a great positive attitude. A lot of sweat and smiles went into the field and here we are.
The long wait finally ended on Monday, when the Panthers defeated Sheridan Hills Christian 12-6 in the regional final. The victory marked the end of what has been a long road for Princeton Christian, and the beginning of a new chapter for the program.
The Panthers had a number of obstacles to get through, not the least of which was inexperience. Heading into the season, five players on the Princeton Christian roster had less than two years of softball experience.
To overcome their shortcomings, Princeton Christian relied on a blueprint that called for a foundation composed of faith and small ball, and it was a foundation that was fully embraced and ushered in a cohesiveness that led to an improbable run to the state tournament.
When we step on the field, we check our egos at the door and we play for Gods glory, said Piz, now in his sixth year as the teams coach. We could win or lose, but we want to keep things honorable and in perspective. This is a blessing and we want to make the best of every opportunity we have.
And what the Panthers lacked in experience, they made up for with speed on the base paths and making things unpredictable. Outfielders Christy Ortiz and Natalie De La Espriella provided a one-two punch at the top of the order to set the stage for the teams heavy hitters, including first baseman Heather Hedges and catcher Amanda Doering.
It has been an extremely successful formula that led to the teams strong performance at the plate.
We use our small-ball approach to change the momentum of the game, Piz said. I love teaching them to play small ball; it engages the team and gets everyone involved while keeping our opponents on their toes. No team is going to know what to expect when they play us.
On the mound, pitcher Courtney Cox has been a rock for the Panthers, dominating opposing lineups not with pitch velocity, but with control and efficiency. At one point during the season, Cox went several games without surrendering a single walk.
Her control has been excellent this year, Piz said of his go-to pitcher. She doesnt have a lot of speed, but she will hit the corners consistently.
For their game against Pine Castle Christian on Friday, Piz has focused on getting his team mentally prepared for what is unchartered territory for the program.
Ninety percent of what weve focused on is between the ears, Piz said. They just have to play the game theyve played all year.
As far as expectations go, the Panthers, who left Miami Thursday afternoon, are not planning on settling for just a nice vacation.
The girls have done a great job and theyve peaked at the right time; theyre as good now as theyve been all year, Piz said. If we arent planning to win, then theres no reason to go.