Green Cove Springs, FL

Softball Preview: Clay High seeks another Final Four appearance

Tony Salazar

The Clay High Blue Devils’ softball team held their annual soda scrimmage Wednesday night to raise donations and a chance for the girls to play under the lights in front of their families before the season.

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Photo byTony Salazar

The softball team has done a soda scrimmage for the past 18 seasons to stock up the concession stands. A case of soda or water is the cost of entry for soda scrimmages for the softball team.

With a new season comes excitement for the 2023 season. The softball team is coming off of a deep playoff run that ended with a Final Four appearance last season. Last year's team also faced some adversity due to their Regional Championship game taking place the night of graduation. Four of the five seniors decided to skip graduation to play in the Regional Championship where they won in an extra-inning thriller on the road to the West Florida Jaguars, 1-0.

One of the sisters of the seniors on last year’s team is still on the roster and looks to build on the success of 2022 for her junior year.

“We just want to try and build up our team because we are very young and hopefully to make it to the Final Four again,” said junior second baseman Kendyll Mann.

Even though Clay High softball is a young team, the Blue Devils have an experienced duo of pitchers returning for 2023. Junior McKinsey Bardroff is a returning pitcher who got significant playing time last season. Bardroff pitched in 14 games last year and had a 3.38 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 47.2 innings pitched. Bardoff has seen continuous growth with her pitching since her freshman season.

“I’ve grown a lot since my freshman year. My pitches have gotten more spin and speed and I’ve seen good hitters struggle and pop out,” said Bardroff.

Another returning player is senior pitcher Gabby Ellis, who will play at the next level for Mercer. Ellis dominated on the mound for the Blue Devils late into the season and in the playoffs. Ellis had a 1.11 ERA, an 8-6 record and struck out 141 batters last season. Now that Ellis is a senior, her goal is to make it back to the Final Four while also showing the younger girls the way.

“I just try to let them know that there is nothing to be scared of because they are all super nervous. They are in their first or second year and they are all a little bit scared. I try to let them know that there is nothing to be worried about,” said Ellis.

Serena Willmon is another senior who hopes the younger girls can learn from the seniors about how to play the game.

“There are a lot of first-year players so I hope they get to learn the game from us older girls because it will help a lot,” said Willmon.

One of those first-year players is junior Sha’niyah Ruffin. Ruffin is a soccer player who recently recovered from an injury and wanted to play softball to see if she was physically ready to play soccer but fell in love with the sport. Ruffin has been focusing on trying to adapt her athletic ability to the softball field.

“Switching from soccer which is a foot sport to softball which is mostly using your hands. I got to remember I’m not working with my feet so I need to jump for the ball and I’m not really used to that. I’m just trying to adapt as much as I can and get used to it,” said Ruffin.

One of the veteran players that first-year girls like Ruffin seek advice from is senior first baseman Frankilyn Herbert. Herbert wants to enjoy one last ride with her teammates while also seeing the younger players excel in the sport.

“I’m not pursuing college so I’m looking forward to spending time with my friends and playing the sport while I can because I’ll miss it,” said Herbert. “It would make me really happy to see the younger girls grow as players. I talk to a lot of them. They ask questions and they are very involved and they want to learn. I love that,” said Herbert.

Head coach Matt Lewis is excited for the 2023 season. Lewis will be coaching his 28th season as head coach of the program. Lewis has seen the game significantly change since he started 28 years ago.

“There is a lot of stronger girls. Weight lifting has taken a bigger role with that with a lot of conditioning,” said Lewis. “Speed has picked up and slapping has been a big pickup with the evolvement of the game.”

After the deep playoff run last season, Lewis has kept the expectation to go back to the Final Four for 2023.

“The expectation is to do the same thing like last year. Getting back to the Final Four is our goal again. We’ve got a good group of girls and we’ve got seven girls who were with us last year so we’ve got some experience. We lost five seniors who started so that’s going to be hard to fill but at the same time we’ve got some people to fill those roles,” said Lewis.

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Photo byTony Salazar

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I am a graduate of the University of North Florida with a major in communication with a focus in journalism and a minor in sports management.

Green Cove Springs, FL
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