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Gulf Breeze softball has tough end to season in region championship in loss against Gainesville

Bill Vilona
Special to the News Journal

A breakthrough season with the Gulf Breeze Dolphins softball team was ended Thursday night by a youthful breakout star.

Gainesville High freshman Leanna Bourdage, already ranked among the nationֱs upper tier of prep pitchers, dazzled with 12 strikeouts and a three-hit shutout in leading her team past host Gulf Breeze, 3-0, in the Region 1-5A championship game.

If her array of spinners wasnֱt wowing enough, Bourdage also hit a solo home run in the third inning for the gameֱs first run and reached base three times.

ֱSince her first practice, we knew she was going to be a special talent with us,ֱ said long-time Gainesville coach Chris Chronister. ֱAnd to think we have three more years with her ֱ itֱs exciting. But we still have business to take care of this year. Weֱre not done.ֱ

The Hurricanes (23-4) advanced to the Class 5A final four next week in Clermont, just a two-hour drive south of Gainesville, in their first return to that stage since Chronisterֱs 2016 team won the state title.

ֱFrom the start of the season, we said weֱre going to states, so it means a lot to us,ֱ said Bourdage, who is already fielding recruiting inquires from everywhere, including the Florida Gators program, located 3.5 miles from the high school.

Gulf Breeze (16-10) reached its first region final in 14 years, an achievement that Dolphins coach Chelsea McGehee hopes can bring further advancement.

ֱI could not be more proud of these girls,ֱ she said.

The Dolphins were well-aware of Bourdageֱs feats, which included an 18-strikeout, no hitter against former top-ranked (5A) Middleburg to win the District 2 championship on May 3. It gave her 200 strikeouts for the season and lowered her earned-run average to 0.55.

Still, seeing is believing.

Bourdage walked the first batter she faced, centerfielder Kenna King, to start the game, then struck out the final two batters with King on second base. Until the sixth inning, the Dolphins did not have two baserunners in any inning.

ֱShe is a great person,ֱ McGehee said. ֱWe got the scouting report. We knew what she could do. But we also kind of helped her out a little bit (swinging at some pitches outside the strike zone).

ֱBut I was proud that we started to make an adjustment toward the end of the game and thatֱs all you can ask of your kids. They tried hard.ֱ

Gainesville expanded its lead, triggered by two infield hits. After Josie Kirwan began the inning with a spinning line drive infield hit, Elise Knopf put down a perfect bunt that Gulf Breeze catcher Presley Hall picked up and attempted to get Kirwan in a rundown between second and third. But Hall beat the throw to third base and the next batter, McKenna OֱSullivan followed with an RBI single.

The Hurricanes tacked on a third run with a sacrifice fly.ֱ

Gulf Breeze senior pitching star Leila Ammon constantly worked out of tough situations and finished with eight strikeouts when lifted in the sixth inning. Itֱs been Ammon who helped lead the Dolphins to this point with her pitching performances.

ֱShe dug deep and sometimes you get out there and your stuff isnֱt doing the normal movement,ֱ McGehee said. ֱShe didnֱt get stressed and stayed very poised. Thatֱs all I can ask of her.

ֱI could not be more proud of that kid. She is someone who is a very talented player, but she is an even better person, even better teammate and it just been a pleasure to have her," McGehee added of the senior, who is signed to play at Middle Tennessee State University next year.

Here are three takeaways from the game.

Biggest moment

Gulf Breeze's Leila Ammon (13) gives a fist bump to an assistant coach after a single during the Dolphins' 3-0 loss to the Hurricanes in the Region 1-5A final on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in Gulf Breeze.

The Dolphins had their best chance to score in the sixth inning. Ammon led off with a single and Jacey Reed followed with a walk.

The next batter, Ava Chapman, worked a 3-1 count, but Bourdage got her out on an infield popout, struck out the next batter and ended the inning by fielding a grounder to the pitcher's circle and throwing to first.

ֱIֱve been in situations like this before. I was a (travel ball league) national champion in 2023, so Iֱve been under pressure and I knew I could work out of it,ֱ Bourdage said.

ֱItֱs one thing to hear and see what they do in the travel ball circuit,ֱ Chronister said. ֱBut then when you play high school ball and youֱre playing against girls three and four years older, you hope that translates for (freshman players) and for her it really has.

ֱYou would never know sheֱs a freshman. Sheֱs handled this like a pro.ֱ

Bourdage winced in pain during the inning as well, reaggravating an arm issue that has been examined she said multiple times, but doesnֱt hinder performance.

ֱThis has been going on for a month now. We are working on it,ֱ she said.

Natural comparison

Gainesville star pitcher Leanna Bourdage prepares to release the ball during the Dolphins' 3-0 loss to the Hurricanes in the Region 1-5A final on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in Gulf Breeze.

Now in her seventh season as Gulf Breeze coach, McGehee can remember another freshman pitcher four years ago who created a buzz in the local softball community.

Pace senior and nationally acclaimed pitcher Jayden Heavener will be now trying to take the Patriots to a third consecutive Class 6A state final four in their game on Saturday against Hagerty High, located near Orlando. McGehee indicated Heavenerֱs velocity, coming from a left-hander, along with her new array of spinners, is what puts her in such a different level.

ֱJayden just blows it by you and I have loved watching that kid grow over the years. Because now she has picked up a little more spin and so that is just unfair," McGehee said with a laugh. ֱActually Iֱve loved watched her growing up. I love when weֱve competed against her.ֱ

Fun conclusion

Gulf Breeze's Sydney Hersom celebrates on first base after a single during the Dolphins' 3-0 loss to the Hurricanes in the Region 1-5A final on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in Gulf Breeze.

Gulf Breeze began its season with wins in eight of the nine first games. But in mid-April, the Dolphins floundered with losses in five of seven games.

Thatֱs when McGehee gathered her team and told them to stop pressing, go have fun enjoy the game, enjoy competing. That message connected. The Dolphins reeled off wins in four of its five prior games before Thursdayֱs loss.

ֱWe had some tough times this season where we just didnֱt execute the way we can,ֱ she said. ֱWe practiced hard and we would got into a game and it wasnֱt just quite clicking. Those hard games reminded us of how great the good days were and to try to make those better days happen more and toward the end of the season.

ֱWe really started figuring that out. I was proud of us learning new tricks and making adjustments in the batting practice.ֱ

Bill Vilonaֱis a retired Pensacola News Journal sports columnist and now senior writer for Pensacola Blue Wahoos. He can be reached atֱbvilona@bluewahoos.com