By JOHN LEMBOjlembo@bradenton.com
The regional softball playoffs begin next week, and Saint Stephen’s won’t be there.
The Falcons haven’t been there since 2008, when they won a district championship.
But they are getting there. Right now, that’s the most important thing.
There was a time when Saint Stephen’s fielded one of the area’s most competitive teams, winning five district titles since ’01 and a run of three straight from 2004-06.
But in the spring of ’09, there was no softball at Saint Stephen’s. The diamond at Turner Fields sat empty, a victim of a sudden lack of participation.
It was stunning turn of events. It wasn’t as if the Falcons had been a sputtering program for decades. In fact, they had won another district title in ’08, a year that was supposed to be all about rebuilding.
Well, the last two years have been all about rebuilding. Saint Stephen’s fielded a team last year and this year.
The wins haven’t been piling up as they had been in the past, and the play may not be as crisp as it was.
But there the Falcons were Tuesday afternoon, hosting a district semifinal. They didn’t win, falling to St. Petersburg Northside Christian 8-2.
But they played hard. They worked walks. They stole bases. They scampered home on wild pitches and made the routine plays.
“Working hard in practice each day,” said Stephanie Travis, who just wrapped her second season as the team’s head coach, “is what’s going to take us to the next level.”
There weren’t enough girls to field a junior varsity this spring, so Saint Stephen’s moved everyone up to the next rung, expanding the varsity roster to 18 players. While it may have cut into some people’s playing time, it gave Travis and her staff a jump-start in indoctrinating the younger players to the game of softball. The Falcons had nine seventh-graders on their roster this spring.
Getting the younger players involved is integral to the program. The goal is no longer to win district championships, but to keep kids involved.
This year’s group loses one senior -- Cassidy Whidden, one of the area’s best players who is off to Notre Dame -- so the hope is that everyone in uniform Tuesday will be in uniform when practices begin next January.
“A lot of girls who were on our varsity team never played before, or maybe played just one season,” Travis said. “It’s really just teaching the game. ... I think we’ve got them excited enough about softball where we’ll see them back here next year.”
Located next to the scoreboard in left field is a board listing the Falcons’ district softball championships. It hasn’t been touched since ’08 and may not be touched next year, either.
But softball is back at Saint Stephen’s. There are girls who care about the sport, who want to learn more.
The Falcons are getting there.
Right now, that’s the most important thing.
John Lembo, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 745-2097.