JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – One glance at the University Christian softball roster tells part of the story.
This team is young. Exceptionally young.
But among this roster — four sophomores, three freshmen, two eighth graders, a seventh grader and a junior — plenty of these players have experience.
Two years ago, the Christians reached the state semifinals and lost to Admiral Farragut. Last year, the season was canceled 10 games in for the Christians. Now, at 17-2 and riding a nine-game winning streak, the Christians are headed for the Class 2A state semifinals on Tuesday in Clermont with a championship on their minds.
UC faces Mount Dora Christian Academy (20-8) at 5 p.m.
A roster that young shouldn’t be this good.
Kyla Bennett, Sophia Kardatzke, Jaleighia Harris and Erin Hutchens were all on the roster when UC made the state semifinals in 2019. Hutchens is the oldest of those returnees. She’s a junior. Harris and Kardatzke are freshmen. Bennett is a sophomore.
Coach Keith Stroud, a UC veteran who is coaching in his eighth state semifinal game across three different sports — four in softball, three in girls basketball, one in boys basketball — said that experience comes in different ways.
“I think it’ll be a big moment for them. But then at the same time, I’ve tried all year long, tried to tell them, play every game like is the biggest game, so it’s not like you’re just blowing up one game, so the kids would just kind of feel like, ‘hey, is another game,’” Stroud said.
“They know what’s riding [on this]. They know what’s on the line if you play for a state championship. I expect them to be a little nervous. But you know, hopefully like football, after you first hit or whatever. Hey, you’re good to go. So that’s what I’m hoping.”
The Christians’ youth hasn’t been an impediment at all. Stroud said there have been flickers of inexperience at times, but they have been fleeting.
And UC is getting prime production from those underclassmen, none bigger than from Kardatzke.
Kardatzke has been sensational for the Christians this year, combining powerful pitching with a robust presence at the plate. She said that losing the 2021 season to the pandemic was still in the minds of players this year, and UC has kept the same mindset because of it.
Play every inning like it’s the last one of the year.
“We were just going to keep playing as a team because we knew that was another possibility [cancellations]. We were frustrated last year because of the season getting canceled,” she said. “And that still being a possibility this year we knew every game was going to be played like it was our last. We’re just going to keep going until something happens.”
Kardatzke homered in six consecutive games before going homerless against Trinity Christian in the regional final. And, for good reason. After a single, Trinity walked Kardatzke the next four times. In the pitcher’s circle, she struck out 15 to cool off one of the most experienced lineups in town.