Pitching, Martha Stewart key ingredients for GHS

Gainesville's Leanna Bourdage pitched a four-hitter with eight strikeouts in a 10-3 win over Columbia in the 5A District 2 Semifinal on Tuesday.
Gainesville's Leanna Bourdage pitched a four-hitter with eight strikeouts in a 10-3 win over Columbia in the 5A District 2 Semifinal.
Photo by C.J. Gish

Editor’s note: Class 5A state runner-up GHS and  head coach Chris Chronister were guests on “The Prep Zone” sports show with hosts Mike Ridaught and Marty Pallman on Thursday, May 30, at locally owned Sonic Drive-In of Gainesville. Click here to listen to the archive.

Last week the Gainesville softball team advanced to its first final four in eight years.

On May 23, the No. 4 seed Hurricanes defeated No. 2 seed Archbishop McCarthy (Southwest Ranches), 5-2, in the FHSAA Class 5A state semifinals at Legends Way Ball Fields in Clermont.

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The following day, GHS (24-5) came up just short, falling to top seed and defending state champion Parrish Community, 3-2, in eight innings in the title game.

The loss snapped a seven-game winning streak, including six straight wins in the post season.

It was a drastic turnaround from a year ago after the Hurricanes finished with just six victories all season long in 2022-23.

“It’s not hard to figure out,” said Gainesville softball coach Chris Chronister. “When you have excellence in the circle, it gives you a chance in every single game. Last year we struggled with pitching. We didn’t have a dominating pitcher in the circle and that’s how we ended up with six wins on the season.”

Dominance is one word to describe freshman pitcher Leanna Bourdage, who finished the season with a 0.57 earned run average and nine shutouts.

“Nobody works harder than she does,” Chronister said following the extra innings loss last Friday. “She’s going to continue to get better. That’s going to mean that our team is going to continue to get better, but we need every single part of the team to get better so that we can win this game next year.”

Gainesville struggled with a team ERA of 5.76 in 2023.

“We were competitive in a lot of games last year, and if we would have had a more dominant pitcher last year, we probably would have won 20 games,” Chronister said. “This is a state champion (Parrish), and we held them to two runs in the regular seven innings, and how many other shutouts did we have, other teams in the playoffs, and not give up any runs? So dominance in the circle is where it always starts. That’s how you build championship teams.”

Elise Knopf, the team’s lone senior, wasn’t sure what to expect in the circle in 2024.

Gainesville coach Chris Chronister with the Class 5A state runner-up trophy on Friday.
Photo by Mike Ridaught Gainesville coach Chris Chronister with the Class 5A state runner-up trophy on Friday.

“At the beginning of the season I didn’t know of Leanna’s potential—like I didn’t know how good she was going to be,” she said. “But when I saw her come out in practice, hustling, running every play, throwing strikes at 60 miles per hour, I knew we were going to do good.”

It remains to be seen just how good Bourdage can be and whether she will exceed what Katie Chronister (University of Florida) and Alissa Humphrey (Jame Madison University) have done for the Hurricanes the past 10 years.

In 136 innings pitched this season, Bourdage struck out 251 batters.

She was phenomenal in the postseason too, including a no-hitter and 18 strikeouts at Middleburg to win the 5A-District 2 championship, and 14 strikeouts in the 5A state semifinals.

Bourdage is on pace to surpass Chronister (725 strikeouts) and Humphrey, who broke Chronister’s record with 972 career strikeouts.

However, Humphrey only threw 47 innings in the 2020 shortened season (COVID-19) and still finished with 106 strikeouts, as well as a 0.00 ERA through seven games.

So pitching was huge for a run to the state title game this year, but so were the offensive fireworks.

The latter was thanks to the inclusion of the pitching machine right before postseason play.

“Martha Stewart had something to say about it,” Chronister said. “The girls, they nicknamed our pitching machine, Martha Stewart, and a little before the playoffs started, we started instituting using the pitching machine, Martha Stewart, in every practice. They really just enjoyed the challenge of hitting off the pitching machine. So, yeah, Martha was a part of it.”

That’s right, Martha Stewart was a key ingredient for GHS.

Ironically, their leading home run hitter is a Cook.

Junior catcher Braylin Cook led the team with 12 home runs, another oddity considering a cook typically works with a dozen.

Gainesville's Braylin Cook (leg up) put the Hurricanes up to stay with a three-run home run in the first inning against Deltona in the Region 1-5A Quarterfinals on Thursday.
Photo by C.J. Gish Gainesville’s Braylin Cook (leg up) put the Hurricanes up to stay with a three-run home run in the first inning against Deltona in the Region 1-5A Quarterfinals.

Her coming out party may have been against Columbia (Lake City) in the district semifinals, when she hit three home runs to help send the Hurricanes to the district championship game.

“We’ve been practicing on the hitting machine, we were prepared for this game,” Cook said after the game. “I feel like everybody showed up, showed out.”

Indeed, everyone seemed to be hitting the ball well, as evidenced by their 12-1 win in five innings against Deltona in the first round of the 5A state playoffs.

The No. 4 seed Hurricanes batted .455 as a team against the No. 5 seed Wolves, finishing with 12 runs on 10 hits, including another homer by Cook.

Cook (.432), Bourdage (.386, 7 HRs), Knopf (.322), junior McKenna O’Sullivan (.404, 10 DBL), junior Rihanna Williams (.309), and sophomore Roxanne Walsh (.319) all batted over .300 this season (minimum 45 at-bats).

“This year, overall, I’m really proud of us because of how hard we worked,” Bourdage said. “Bringing out the pitching machine later in the season definitely helped us. I think had we started with that it could have been a little better. Overall, just a really great season offensively and defensively.”

Pitching and the pitching machine seemed to be the recipe for a long postseason run.

“Martha Stewart definitely helped us get this far,” Knopf said. “She helped us practice for the faster pitching and watching movement, so she definitely helped us win and get this far.”

With Bourdage and most of the team returning, including Cook, GHS is an early favorite to win the state title next season.

Martha will also be back after serving in more of a postseason role for the team this past season.

“We expected to face better pitching,” Chronister said. “I think Martha will probably get a little bit of a break. We’ll see how things go early in the season, but I don’t want to get her tired out so that she’s ready for the playoffs.”

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