A pitcher’s duel, extra innings and weathering wet, muddy conditions were all needed before Academy at the Lakes softball could finally claim its first-ever state championship.
Overcoming hurdles, they wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
The Wildcats (26-4) defeated Monticello Aucilla Christian 1-0 in 11 innings on May 22 in the FHSAA (Florida High School Athletic Association) Class 2A state finals at Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach.
Academy at the Lakes (AATL) junior pitcher and Alabama commit Alexis Kilfoyl outdueled Aucilla Christian senior and Florida signee Elizabeth Hightower in the team’s most difficult test of the season.
In addition to unleashing a 13-strikeout, four-hit shutout, Kilfoyl was responsible for the game-winning single that allowed freshman shortstop Brooke Blankenship to score on a two-out single in the 11th inning.
“The 11 innings really pushed us to our max. It was definitely a tough pitcher battle,” Kilfoyl, one of the nation’s top pitching prospects, said afterwards.
What made the triumph even sweeter was knowing they unseated an Aucilla Christian program that’s won state crowns two of the last three years.
“Probably one of the greatest (feelings) I’ve ever had. Just all the hard work we put into it, it feels good to finally pay off,” Kilfoyl said.
A post-season celebration was held at the school on May 24 to honor the softball team’s achievements. Players, their families and friends, and school administration all gathered to soak in the momentous achievement.
“It’s finally setting in a little bit,” Blankenship said with an ear-to-ear smile at the celebration. “We’re just kind of looking back on all our hard work…so next season we’ll know what it takes.”
In 2017, the Wildcats ended a 20-win season with a disappointing 5-3 loss to St. Petersburg Canterbury in the Class 2A regional final.
Coming up short motivated the team to improve under the watch of second-year head coach Diane Stephenson, a longtime Division I softball coach for Indiana, Purdue and Iowa universities.
To better prepare for the 2018 playoffs, Stephenson and her staff ventured to compile a challenging regular season.
Matchups were scheduled against larger public schools like Freedom, Land O’ Lakes, Mitchell and River Ridge high schools, among many others.
Said Stephenson, “It was great for our kids because they learned a lot of resilience and they learned to play from behind. They learned so much. They learned mental toughness.”
It proved fruitful in the grind-it-out state title game.
“When we got into that game and it was 0-0, they flexed a couple times, but they weren’t worried, and that’s what mental toughness does for you. It prepares you for the battle, and we were prepared for the battle for sure,” Stephenson said.
With a varsity roster of no seniors and mostly underclassmen and some middle- schoolers, the Wildcats figure to be a staying power for the foreseeable future.
It also could mean a state title repeat in 2019.
“It’ll definitely be fun,” Kilfoyl said of next season’s possibilities. “I’m really looking forward to it because I know we can definitely do it again, if we do what we did this time.”
Having Stephenson back as a coach will serve well, too.
The highly regarded coach was inducted into Indiana University’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2016. She won 402 games in 15 seasons, and led the Hoosiers to NCAA Tournament appearances in 1994 and 1996.
“She’s definitely someone we all look up to. Her energy helps us, and she knows the game,” said Blankenship, a Florida State commit.
In addition to its feats on the softball field this season, Academy at the Lakes likewise dominated in the classroom.
Their combined cumulative grade-point average of 3.85 was the highest of any softball-playing team in the state.
Meantime, it’s been quite a year athletics-wise for the private school, as it celebrates its 25th anniversary in existence.
In December, the AATL football team went 11-1 and won its first-ever eight-man state championship, under head coach Shawn Brown.
“It’s been a great year,” said Wildcats athletics director Tom Haslam. “It’s big for the community, it’s big for our program and, best of all, it’s big for the kids because that just builds confidence, and now they’re excited more and they want to do it again.”
Academy at the Lakes 2018 varsity softball
- Alexis Kilfoyl, junior
- Allie Glatfelter, seventh grade
- Amber Nadeau, sophomore
- Aubrey McLeod, sophomore
- Brooke Blankenship, freshman
- Caitlin Blankenship, seventh grade
- Devyne Davis, freshman
- Elisabeth Robichaux, eighth grade
- Hannah Church, eighth grade
- Hayley Reed, eighth grade
- Jessica Mott, sophomore
- Mia Fields, sixth grade
- Nicole Gilleland, freshman
- Tristen Gittens, junior
- Vanessa Alexander, freshman
- Diane Stephenson, head coach
- John Counts, assistant coach
- Robbie Blankenship, assistant coach
- Kennedy Lachicotte, assistant coach
Published May 30, 2018