University Christian waited a long time for a moment like Wednesday.
State champs. Finally.
The Christians won their first softball fast pitch state championship, beating Fort Myers Evangelical Christian 3-2 in a delayed Class 2A title game at Legends Way Ballfield in Clermont. Jaleigha Harris knocked in the winning run in the bottom of the fifth and pitcher Sophia Kardatzke capped her brilliant junior season with the only thing missing from her career by working out of a seventh inning jam to deliver a long-awaited crown.
The Sentinels put two runners on with no outs in the final inning, but UC forced an out on a baserunning gaffe, then got a Kardatzke strikeout and a game-ending line out to shortstop Elissa Murdock to ice it.
It’s the first state championship for the program and longtime coach Keith Stroud, who had the Christians in title games in 2021-22. Stroud has coached for 39 years (32 of those at UC) and never won the final game until Wednesday.
“Some of these kids have been playing since the sixth grade. And it was just a real enjoyable group. I mean, great kids, great parents. And it was a team. That was a thing about it, we preached all year long, it was a team effort. We’ve got some outstanding players on the team and then we’ve got some just kids that are solid players that are going to give you everything they got. And that’s what it takes. That’s what it takes to build a team. And definitely this, was across the board, a team victory.”
The difference this season — the Christians were ready for their time in the spotlight.
A team loaded with underclassmen the last few seasons grew up together and cleared the final hurdle. And they’re not going away anytime soon. With just four seniors — Kyla Bennett, Macie Bourgholtzer, Emma Reynolds and Jahliyah Robinson — the Christians will be the heavy favorite to defend.
Harris pushed in Bourgholtzer on a squeeze bunt and Kate Dell’Alba doubled in another run for a 2-0 Christians lead in the first inning. That left things up to Kardatzke. She ran into problems in the fourth when the Sentinels tied things up, but managed to get out of the inning. Harris singled in the fifth to break the tie game, knocking in Robinson to go up 3-2. Harris had two RBI in the game.
Kardatzke delivered a perfect game in the circle with 11 strikeouts in the state semifinals, then did enough to keep the Sentinels off balance on Wednesday. She scattered four hits over the distance and whiffed eight, but Evangelical Christian managed to make things much closer than normal by drawing seven walks.
For Stroud, a UC lifer who has been a head coach or an assistant in just about every sport at the school over more than 30 years in coaching, it was an accomplishment a career in the making. Stroud has coached teams to championship game appearances in girls basketball and softball, and taken others like the boys basketball team, to the state final four.
“I’m thinking of all the teams I’ve coached and some of us have just come up short sometimes,” Stroud said. “I said please don’t let that happen. And then she [Murdock] made the catch, I think it was a big relief. Big relief.”
Fast-pitch softball titles have been tough to win. UC becomes just the 11th area program to win a state championship.
Clay (2001), Bishop Snyder (2006), Bartram Trail (2008-09), Eagle’s View (2008-10), Columbia (2013), Baker County (2015), Oakleaf (2017), Union County (2017), Trinity Christian (2019) and Middleburg (2022) have all won crowns.