Severna Park pitcher Kaila Jenkins gave shortstop Katie Purcell a piggyback ride off the field after the Falcons' 2-0 win over La Plata in the Maryland 3A South Region tournament final last Thursday -- a fitting gesture, because Jenkins had shouldered plenty of responsibility for the three consecutive victories that gave the Falcons a berth in the state tournament.
The sophomore right-hander led the tenth-ranked Falcons (20-3) to victories over Leonardtown, fifth-ranked Northeast and La Plata that earned them a trip to the state tournament for a school-record third consecutive season. The Falcons allowed one run on 14 hits in 22 innings in those three games. Meanwhile, they managed to score just four runs in their final two games combined.
"Pretty much our mind-set is to get one or two runs, and that's all we're going to need because we have Kaila," Purcell said. "Having her makes it easier for us because even if the other teams get a few people on base, we know she's not going to give up the hit to let them score."
Jenkins made the difference in a region tournament considered the most competitive of the state's four classifications. It included top teams from Anne Arundel County and from the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference -- leagues in which the caliber of softball is unmatched by any other in the state.
Defending state champion Severna Park was one of the region's four teams -- along with Northeast, Calvert and La Plata -- to be ranked at some point this season, and one of the two leagues had produced the 3A state champion in each of the past eight seasons and in 11 of the past 12 years.
But after the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association reclassified schools based on enrollments, Northeast, Annapolis and Severna Park were moved from the 3A East Region -- where they played less-talented teams from the Prince George's and Howard County leagues -- to the 3A South. The three Anne Arundel County schools replaced three Southern Maryland Athletic Conference Schools that moved into the 4A classification.
"We knew going into the tournament that the team that wins the region is probably going to win the state title," La Plata Coach Tony Jones said. "If we're in any other region, we'd have probably made it to the state tournament, but our game in the region final [against Severna Park] could have just as easily have been for the state championship."
Severna Park Coach Jeff Shepherd said he expected closer games this year than when the Falcons played opponents from the Howard County league, which has not won a state title in the tournament's 27-year history, and from Prince George's County, which last produced a state softball champion in 1989. By comparison, the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference has produced 14 state champions since 1992 in the four classifications, and Anne Arundel County had nine during the same period.
"You look at the success of Anne Arundel County and Southern Maryland, and how good our region is speaks for itself," Shepherd said. "I told our team how tough it was going to be in regionals, and mentally they needed to be ready to play their best softball of the season if we wanted to win."
That's just what Severna Park did during its three-game run that prevented the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference from sending a team to the state tournament for the first time since 1988.
The Falcons combined timely hitting with Jenkins's dominance and a defense that committed just two errors.
"Our focus during regionals was the best it's been all season," Jenkins said. "We knew there was going to be a lot of pressure, but we didn't let it get to us."
Against La Plata, which had defeated then top-ranked Calvert in the semifinals 24 hours earlier, senior catcher Erin O'Keefe lined a two-run double to left with two outs in the first inning to provide the game's only runs. Jenkins took over from there, allowing four hits, striking out 14 and letting one runner reach third base.
Severna Park played Mount Hebron in the state semifinals on Tuesday in a game that finished too late to be included in this edition.
"The redistricting of schools made our region ridiculously hard, and we were used to seeing these really good teams in the state tournament," O'Keefe said. "We took this as a challenge to make it back to the state tournament, and we really came together as a team and got it done."