In six seasons as head softball coach of Oakleaf High School, Christina Thompson has never failed to make the Florida state playoffs. It's an impressive feat, considering Thompson had to build the Orange Park program from scratch in 2011.
Since then, she has seen Oakleaf's teams grow from being considered a "David" to a "Goliath" on the state scene.
In 2015, the Knights were a definite underdog when they lost 11 regular season games and entered the postseason seeded fourth in their own district. Oakleaf would go on to upset Gainesville -- the state's top-ranked team -- in district play and then won four more games on its way to the FHSAA semifinals.
Last year, the Knights transformed into a powerhouse, winning their first 21 games of the season and securing a No. 1 national ranking. However, they were upset by Strawberry Crest in the regional finals, falling one game short of the final four and finishing with a 27-3 record.
Through it all, one thing has been consistent: Oakleaf has produced a winning team every season, and 2017 has been no different. After one month of play, the Knights are 9-2 and ranked fourth in the state Class 8A polls.
"We had a lot of players returning from last year's team, but I think this year's squad has a different feel about them," Thompson said.
I think the girls are carrying last year's regional loss with them and are using it as motivation this season. That loss devastated them a little, but I think it also made them realize we are no longer the 'David' or the 'Goliath.' Instead, I think they realize that we control our own destiny, and we need to write our own story.Oakleaf's only setbacks this year were to defending 9A champion West Orange and a tough 2-1 road loss to nearby Jacksonville power Atlantic Coast. The Knights have won five straight games since then, outscoring opposition 48-5 along the way.
This year's team is led by senior pitcher Kelsey Sweatt and sophomore Madi Davis. Sweatt, the reigning Class 8A Pitcher of the Year and a USC Upstate signee is 3-2 with a 1.01 ERA, while Davis -- already a verbal commit to Troy State -- is 5-0 with a 0.86 ERA.
"We're very fortunate to have two excellent pitchers we can start," Thompson said. "Kelsey has worked hard this summer on throwing different pitches with confidence, while Madi has gotten stronger, picked up some velocity, and is really coming into her own."
Offensively, Oakleaf is explosive. As a team, the Knights are hitting .340 and are led by juniors Angela Agurkis (.500) and Rebecca Koskey (.455). Agurkis is a verbal commit to Florida Atlantic, while Koskey has pledged to Florida International. Senior Mika Garcia (.414, West Florida signee) and sophomore Baylee Goddard (.455, Florida verbal commit) have also played key roles in the Knights' offense.
As to Oakleaf's chances of getting back to the state final four for the first time since 2015, Thompson says she doesn't even talk about it with her team.
"Our philosophy is simply any team, on any given day," the seventh-year head coach says. "It simply means we can never assume victory, because you never know what is going to happen in a game. A bad bounce is going to happen, so we just try to go out and do our best on every play and every game and try to leave no room for chance."
Still, Thompson acknowledges tough opposition is in store for her team in both district and potential regional play.
"Atlantic Coast still has their ace in Taylor Bauman and we know all about her from earlier this year," Thompson said. "Opposite our district, we know Chiles and Lincoln from Tallahassee are both exceptional teams, and of course Strawberry Crest, the team that knocked us out last year, is also a potential regional opponent."
Thompson says Oakleaf's ability to maintain a high level of success is more about character than talent.
"We like to teach that being part of this program is lot more than just winning softball games," Thompson says.
We really take the time to try to teach our kids to be better people. When it's time to leave this program, you will understand the value of hard work, respect for the game, and playing it the right way -- to be accountable to your teammates and yourself and strive to be a champion.With an overall record at Oakleaf of 116-49, four district titles, and one regional championship to her credit, it is a recipe that has served Thompson well.