The Evangelical Christian softball program will make its Final Four debut in Clermont Tuesday night at 7 against The First Academy.
Despite their lack of experience on the big state stage, the Sentinels have an old pro guiding them on their historic run.
ECS coach Johnny Manetta has been a regular participant in the Final Four since 2017, winning the Class 7A state title with the Green Wave in 2017 and the 5A crown last year with two other state visits in between.
He said he’ll have very simple advice for his young club, which has only two seniors and otherwise starts middle schoolers and underclassmen in the field.
Evangelical Christian softball wins first regional title to clinch first state Final Four trip
“You know, just play it as one game at a time,” Manetta said. “You know, because there’s enough stress that the game puts on itself, don’t put any pressure on yourself to be you know, any better than you were the day before. Go out there and just do your job and hope that the person next to you does their job. And just be excited for the opportunity. Because it doesn’t come every day.”
It also helps to have a stud pitcher on the mound, which Manetta was blessed with during his runs at Fort Myers with Vivian Ponn, Hannah Perkins, and Julia Knowler last year. The Sentinels have sophomore Zoe Yzaguirre, who has allowed just one unearned run over her team’s first five playoff games and has 139 strikeouts and 19 walks over 92 innings with a .91 ERA.
“You know, she’s very composed, she has been in a lot of big situations,” Manetta said. “She understands the moment, the moment’s never too big for her, she’s gonna go out there, she’s gonna give you everything she has, and she’s not gonna let little things affect because she knows that behind her sometimes is a little bit more inexperience. So she feels like she has to sometimes carry a little bit more of a load and she does a great job with her composure doing so.”
Although this will be her first time competing in Clermont at the state level, Yzaguirre has played at those fields during travel ball tournaments. And she’s enjoyed watching her team grow and mature around her this season as a team leader and is excited to see what they can accomplish next.
“Because you get to see how they grow and how they play and just emotionally and physically help them get through their tough times as a teammate is just amazing,” Yzaguirre said. “I think we’re just going to work really hard at practice on Monday, and just work on the basic things so that we know our little mechanics are there and that we can just fall upon them like whenever we get nervous.”
First Academy (21-6) is a lot like ECS (21-6) as a school also making its first appearance in the state semifinals as a program. The Sentinels are ranked second in Class 2A and First Academy third. The Royals have beaten fourth-ranked Orlando Christian Prep three times, including in the regional semifinals, and beat ninth-ranked Mount Dora 4-0 in the regional final.
The Royals out of Orlando also have a star pitcher in senior Hannah Harper, who has 155 strikeouts and 20 walks in 122.1 innings pitched this season and is also batting .523 with 34 runs scored and 12 doubles.
The Sentinels have spread out their offense with freshman Kylie Shaw at the top of the order scoring 39 runs and driving in 22, sophomore Makayla Jakubuwski scoring 32 times and driving in 28 with eight doubles and five triples along with sophomore MacKenzie Thompson (30 runs, 20 RBI), junior Olivia Laney (21 RBI, 10 doubles) and senior Jazelle Rivera (22 RBI, 24 runs).
ECS does have three state champion players on its roster with senior Yanni David and Jakubuwski as a freshman won with Fort Myers last year and Laney was a key part of Lakewood Ranch winning the Class 7A title a year ago.
Manetta said moving from a big public school like Fort Myers High to a small private school ECS has brought its set of challenges, including having players ranging in age from 12- to 18-years old in the dugout.
“For me, the one thing that we did is we did a lot of coaching, there was a lot of learning being done,” he said. “And, here at the end to see the everything that we’ve worked on really come together, the short game, the power game, the trying to keep your composure because that’s the one thing when you have 12-year-olds out here in pressure situations, sometimes you know, everything gets a little bit too fast for them. But they kept their composure, they did a great job.”
If ECS can get past First Academy, they play either class top-ranked Oxbridge Academy (23-1-1) or University Christian (18-8) on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the final.
“We’re gonna go out there, we’re gonna give them a great effort,” Manetta said. “We’re gonna show up and be proud of our accomplishments this year, and we’re gonna go after it, and we’re going to try to win that state championship.”
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: ECS will play in state softball Final Four for first time in 2022