BRADENTON -- They scored early and often. Then the Saint Stephen's Falcons literally weathered a comeback bid to salt away the program's first district softball championship since 2008.
The host Falcons (9-11) edged Bradenton Christian 11-9 in the Class 3A-District 11 championship Tuesday.
It was the first district tournament game for both teams, who automatically qualified for the region tournament because they are part of a two-team district this season. Out-of-Door Academy and tradition-rich Cardinal Mooney, who won back-to-back state titles in 1994 and 1995 as part of five consecutive final four appearances, did not field teams this spring.
That left the door open for the Falcons and Panthers (8-8) to compete for the district title Tuesday.
"I've got three seniors that have played since they were seventh-graders: Kirsten Samuels, Becca Banks and Kayla Hayes," Saint Stephen's head coach Mike Murphy said. "And they hadn't had a district title since they've been here, so for them to get a district title was really big in their senior year."
After BCS scored the opening run, the Falcons offense exploded against Panthers right-hander Kara Saylor for eight runs in the bottom of the first inning.
It was Saylor's first appearance in the pitcher's circle after recovering from an ankle injury.
"We had a hole in that inning, and you can't get them all," BCS head coach Jay Carbary said. "She settled in. She's a fighter. She's a ballplayer; that's her nature."
Saylor, an eighth-grader, found a groove after that initial rough start, during which the first five Falcons tallied hits including Hayes' leadoff triple and Samuels' run-scoring double.
Meanwhile, the weather at the park shifted into a steady rain that eventually became problematic for Saint Stephen's in the fourth inning.
BCS rallied for four runs in the frame off Samuels as the Falcons committed a couple errors to contribute to the Panthers' cause. It cut their deficit to 10-9.
"The rain got a little tough and my pitcher struggled for a little bit," Murphy said. " ... Other than that, I thought they played real good. They had one rough inning."
Despite the rally, though, Banks shot life right back into the Saint Stephen's dugout when she launched a solo home run in the bottom of the fourth to stretch the lead back to 11-9.
"It's easy to jump on that and go, 'Hey, look we're not done. We just gave up some,'" Murphy said.
BCS put the tying run on first base in the sixth inning, but Samuels worked out of the jam by inducing a pop out. She then retired the Panthers in order in the seventh inning to clinch a Saint Stephen's district title.
The Falcons' and Panthers' opponents in next week's region tournament won't be known until later this week.
Saint Stephen's received multi-hit games from Lane Barnes (two doubles), Lindsay Barton and Samuels. BCS was led by Alayna Bootsma and Savannah Shontere's multi-hit games as well as Carley Carbary's double.