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Sunday, April 3, 2011

The out that wasn't that turned into the home run that wasn't

For eight years, I have had the honor of doing the public address for the St. Johns River Community College, now State College, softball team.

And I'd like to say that no one at that institution has seen more losing in eight years at the school with that program than I have. I've watched the Viking ladies lose games in just about every conceivable way you can imagine -- blowouts, close one-run heartbreaks, in extra innings, in the top of the seventh inning, etc. If there's a way to drop a softball game, the Vikings have done it over the years.

In all eight years I've been at SJRCC/SJRSC, the Vikings have never had a winning season. But to make the state softball tournament for junior colleges, all the Vikings have to do is finish in the top five in the Mid-Florida Conference, arguably the toughest conference in the entire country because it includes the three "big bullies" -- Seminole State, Florida State College-Jacksonville and Santa Fe -- three of the best programs around.

The Vikings have rarely had success with any of those teams, but then again, they haven't had much success against the so-called bottom feeders of the conference either. So come the middle of April, the season would end without a trip to the state tournament.

But for one shining moment, things were different. That was the 2007 season, easily the most enjoyable season I've had doing PA for the Vikings. There were some really good afternoons that spring. And the one that topped all of them came on a Thursday afternoon, April 5, 2007, at home against Central Florida Community College of Ocala.

Both teams were fighting for the fifth and final state playoff spot in the Mid-Florida Conference with the known that Santa Fe, FCC-J, Seminole and Daytona Beach were gobbling up the first four spots easily.

SJRCC came in with a Mid-Florida Conference record of 5-9, Central Florida at 4-10. A doubleheader sweep would give the Vikings some momentum considering they had doubleheaders with Santa Fe, FCC-J, Daytona Beach and state playoff hopeful Lake City left.

Someone, though, forgot to tell the SJRCC girls they had this important doubleheader in front of them, though, in the first game. Central Florida led 7-0 by the fourth inning. But the Vikings fought back on the back of Tater -- Katie Shannon, who belted a solo home run and a three-run shot to make it 8-4.

Central Florida added a run in the seventh to make it a five-run lead. Instead of going away and making the second game a more important thought, the Vikings decided to make it interesting in the the bottom of the seventh.

This was bad for Central Florida, most notably center fielder Lisa Stevenson. Catcher Rachel Torres crushed a pitch that cleared the center field fence, but Stevenson did not know where the fence was and crashed into it full force. When Stevenson crashed, she fractured her leg in two places. It took 40 minutes for paramedics to get to the college, which by the way, is right around the corner from Putnam Community Medical Center, get her on a stretcher and get her transported.

When the game ended, the Vikings lost 9-6, but had the good feeling of fighting back in the end. With a 40-minute delay to get a player off the field, though, you almost forgot there was the rest of a first game and an entire second game left to play.

But that's when the fun really began.

Once again, the Vikings forgot that wakeup call. Central Florida struck for three runs in the top of the first for a 3-0 lead. I'm thinking the state playoff spot they were fighting for is slowly flushing itself down the toilet.

It stayed that way until the fourth when they got two runs, Stefanie Hunt singling in Torres and Allison Posey bringing in Hunt with a single.

It was 3-2 going into the sixth inning where SJRCC needed to make some sort of move to show those in attendance it was really serious about making the state tournament for the first time in its fastpitch history (yeah, I still to this day have a hard time trying to explain to my northern friends that "fastpitch" softball became the "in" thing in the mid 1990s).

The inning began with a Chelsie Garner single. Garner was replaced on the basepaths by pinch-runner Jessica Jordan. Keep that move in mind. That's where this whole story takes a turn for the bizarre later on.

Posey would lay down a beautiful bunt to move Jordan to second and a passed ball got Jordan, the tying run, to third. Kim Turvey then walked and took second on fielder's indifference. With a 1-2 count, local Palatka High product Megan Harris delivered a single to right field to bring in both runs to give SJRCC a 4-3 lead going into the seventh.

Marian McCall, a Keystone Heights High standout and in her freshman year with the Vikings, had come into the game when starter Kerrie Alexander had trouble in the first inning and held the Patriots scoreless. Now she needed three outs to get the split and keep the Vikings ahead of Central Florida in the conference standings.

The leadoff hitter was Leslie Todisco. Todisco hit a harmless groundball to second baseman Posey, who threw to Garner at first for the opening out of the inning.

Or so we thought. From the third-base coaching box came head coach Kris Cox. The home plate umpire's job is to record who comes in and out of the game and if you have ever witnessed a softball game, you know it becomes an endless game of substitutions with pinch-runners, pinch-hitters, flex position moves and pitching changes.

College softball game moves make Little League-level game moves look downright normal. Recently, I had an umpire before an SJRSC game tell me the whole concept of that "flex" position, which I still am fuzzy with to this day, and he tried hard, but it still didn't penetrate my brain the way I hoped it would.

But I digress. In this particular game, Vikings head coach Toni Willis never alerted home plate umpire Carl Willis (no relation) that Garner had come back into the game at first base for Jordan, who had pinch-run. So by rule, without announcing the change, Jordan was still in the game.

Cox knew that. And when Carl Willis came back over to Toni Willis and assistant coach Becky Bennett to tell them they never reported the switch back to Garner, Garner was considered an illegal player. And because she touched the ball, Todisco was, by rule, allowed to hit again.

Hit again. Bill Murray waking up at 6:30 in the morning to "I Got You Babe" had nothing on this moment. One out suddenly became none out.

But wait, this gets better.

On the third pitch of the second at-bat, Todisco hit a popup behind first base and in foul ground. Garner and Posey went out for the ball, but Posey dropped the ball for an error, allowing Todisco to stay at the plate.

On a 2-2 pitch, Todisco hit another popup, this time behind the plate. Torres threw off the mask and located the ball. But as she lined up to make the catch, it landed just behind her and fell harmlessly foul. She had misjudged where the ball was, and to the delight of Central Florida and Todisco, the seemingly infinite at-bat continued.

What else could possibly go wrong at this point?

Well, on the next pitch, everything. Todisco laced into McCall's delivery and tattooed it over the center field fence for a home run to tie the game at 4-4.

Todisco had taken advantage of her second, third AND fourth chances to knot the game and as her teammates waited happily for her at home plate, that sense of "oh no, here we go again" was creeping back in the cruelest and most unusual way.

Yeah, I had read this script so many times. I had been around this block before. Throw in every negative cliche you can imagine, I've done it in the three-plus years I had done PA, watching above the softball diamond at almost every single faux pas possible to mankind and womankind.

All I was thinking was McCall gets the next three batters and the Vikings continue whatever momentum they had in the sixth inning to win it in the seventh.

But Rachel Torres was watching the festivities in front of her at the plate. She also watched Todisco coming into home plate. And as soon as the Patriots players mobbed Todisco, Torres noticed something very unusual.

Todisco never touched home plate. Seriously! In a single at-bat that already was bizarre, you couldn't make this stuff up. So she quietly called to coaches Willis and Bennett, who called McCall to toss her the ball before the next batter came to the plate.

Apparently, Torres wasn't the only one watching what was taking place at home plate. As soon as the next batter dug in at the plate. Torres stood up and took a simple appeal toss from McCall and stepped on the plate.

Carl Willis put his fist up and called Todisco out.

Cox went ballistic. She was somewhere between shocked and wronged. But it is the umpire's job to watch the play to the very end, including home runs. She wanted an explanation from Carl Willis and I still believe four years later, she still hasn't gotten a reasonable answer from the man even though he did give her one.

But whether she accepted it or not, instead of 4-4 and none out, it was 4-3 again with one out. McCall struck out the next two batters to give the Vikings the 4-3 win and a much-needed split.

The 2007 season was a very special season at SJRCC for the softball program. They were able to get splits with Daytona Beach, Lake City and FCC-J, the latter coming on a dramatic, two-out, bottom-of-the-seventh inning, two-run home run by Shannon in the second game.

SJRCC finished the conference year tied for the fifth spot with Lake City at 9-15. The Vikings would play a one-game playoff on April 24, 2007 at Santa Fe in Gainesville, and got a two-run single by Shannon in a 3-0 shutout of Lake City to claim their first state playoff berth in fastpitch history.

There were other victories along the way that season, including the rare doubleheader sweep at home of Seminole and splits with Daytona and FCC-J.

But the highlight of that amazing 26-30 season was that second-game victory at home against Central Florida Community College and the out that wasn't, then the home run that turned into an out.

Easily the best and most bizarre moment behind the mic in my eight years of SJRCC/SC softball.

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