BRADENTON - The trickiest pitch Ashton Whidden spun this year didn't come on the softball diamond, and it wasn't directed toward an opposing hitter.
It was, of course, done in partnership with Kelsey Falcone.
On Feb. 7, in front of Saint Stephen's student body, Whidden, a pitcher, signed a letter of intent to play college ball at Saint Leo. Falcone, a catcher, signed with Manatee Community College.
Those who knew the two were shocked. It wasn't as if the choices were bad ones - Saint Leo is a solid Division II program that wooed Whidden with its business program; MCC softball is ranked first in the Florida Community College Activities Association's latest poll and third in the National Junior College Athletic Association.
But the Lions and Lancers play roughly 70 miles apart, which means Whidden and Falcone will play roughly 70 miles apart.
"Everybody who has known us together, it's like peanut butter and jelly," Whidden said. "If I'm alone, they'll be like, 'Where's Kelsey?' Or if Kelsey's alone, they'll be like, 'Where's Ashton?' You don't ask us, 'How's it going?' You just ask where the other one is."
For the past four years, no one has had to look further than the softball diamond at Turner Fields - or more to the point, toward the pitching circle and home plate.
Seniors Falcone and Whidden have been battery mates since freshmen year and were separated for only one inning when Falcone suffered a concussion, and someone else had to catch.
Every other varsity inning since the spring of 2004, it's been Whidden winding up and tossing to Falcone.
Together, they've won three of the program's four district championships and have helped the Falcons to consecutive berths in the regional semifinals. Separately, each has made their own mark on the program: Whidden is nearing 1,000 career strikeouts while Falcone has yet to hit under .500 for a season.
They're constants, forging a relationship that began when Whidden and Falcone were 6-year-olds playing club softball with the Manatee Twisters. Falcone and Whidden played catch during Whidden's first day with the team and have been joined together by two gloves and a ball since.
"I can call a pitch, and she can call me off, and I'm OK," Falcone said. "There's no rivalry between the two of us. We go out there, and we know we have a job to do, and we do it together."
It doesn't hurt that Whidden and Falcone aren't too similar. Shake up a bottle of soda, and you'll get a glimpse of Falcone, an excitable ball of energy who zipped around practice Monday before finally standing still behind Saint Stephen's dugout. As Skip Falcone, Kelsey's dad and a Saint Stephen's assistant said, Kelsey is always on the go. Whidden is a little more laid-back, someone who takes a breath before each sentence as opposed to Falcone's constant patter.
The blonde Falcone is a T-shirt and jeans girl. Whidden, her hair a little darker, considers herself very high maintenance.
"We balance each other out. . . . She's the one that's always excited and hyped up, and I'm more the one that's quiet," Whidden said. "We're complete opposites, by the way we dress, by the way we talk. You would never tell in school that we're friends."
Their final season at Saint Stephen's hasn't been easy. The softball team is a lot younger and less experienced than in the past, but the Falcons' schedule is more challenging than its been. Consequently, Saint Stephen's has lost four games this season after losing two the last two years combined.
So Whidden and Falcone have become teachers as well as teammates, reminding the younger players of the Falcons' increasing tradition and their quest to win a fourth district title.
"It's a learning process," Whidden said.
Next year will be, too. Though Whidden and Falcone play on different travel teams, their battery teaming will end as soon as Saint Stephen's season ends, when Whidden heads to Saint Leo and Falcone, a Bradenton resident, stays in town to play for the Lancers.
The Lions and Lancers do meet in the preseason next year, which may give Whidden a chance to atone for the home run she once served up to Falcone. But it will be a strange fit - Whidden whipping the ball to another catcher while Falcone tries to gauge the quality of another pitcher's stuff.
After all, what's peanut butter without the jelly?
"You can't eat a peanut butter sandwich just by itself," Whidden said. "Maybe you could . . ."
"We don't," Falcone interjected.