The target was placed on the program’s back on March 16, when they were ranked nationally by MaxPreps.com for the first time in school history.
And then the North Fort Myers softball team felt that pressure in its first game off a bye week on Tuesday when it faced Barron Collier, a team that upset the Red Knights in the Region 6A-3 quarterfinals a season ago.
While North Fort Myers lost that game 1-0 to the Cougars, it hasn’t deterred the club from clinging to its high hopes, just months after their former coach, John Keyes, passed away on October 20.
“It means everything to us,” senior first baseman Melinda Thirion said. “After our coach passed, that was our goal (to win states). To do this for him. We wish he could be here to see that with us. But we know he’s watching over us.”
The Red Knights are moving forward, hoping to reconnect with a history that has seen the program win five LCAC championships, three district titles and one region final.
With three seniors, five highly qualified juniors and three sophomores, the Red Knights seem poised to contend for what they’ve set their sights on all along: a Class 6A state championship.
And that 11th-place ranking came with reason. In 15 games before Tuesday’s loss, the Red Knights had given up just five runs against a total of 194 runs scored.
“The people who have been here have made a point to make this a stronger program,” North Fort Myers coach Tony Vodola said. “And of course, when schools have a reputation, everyone wants to play for a winner. That’s what I walked into. The school had a previous history of success.”
Vodola was an important hire, too. When the New Jersey native took over for the club after Keyes’ death this offseason, he kept the team’s philosophy in line with what the former coach had instilled.
But it went deeper than that.
The pair had known each other around coaching circles before this year and they had even connected two years ago in Southwest Florida during a tournament with a plan in mind: Vodola would volunteer under Keyes in one of his final seasons.
“I came here to volunteer,” said Vodola, who left a similarly talented team, Wall High, back home in New Jersey. “I’ve dedicated the season and understood that this is John’s team, and I’ve been honored to take this team. I know why I’m here.”
While a tragic loss put motivation in the player’s hearts, Vodola made sure to keep in touch with the former coach by doing small things that would honor his name.
He changed the home dugout to the opposite side, and had slogans painted on the walls like “I rely on the team, I defer to it and sacrifice for it, because the team, not the individual, is the ultimate champion.”
He painted the school’s name in big red letters across the dugout, and nailed “North” across the brick façade and had labels created for each player’s wooden locker.
“It’s some small stuff, you know?” Vodola said.
It’s all helped, and the details have made North Fort Myers a different team this season.
Junior Mackenzie Peterson, who won 17 games in 2015, has developed into arguably the best pitcher in Southwest Florida, throwing over 65 innings, striking out 69 batters and giving up just five runs.
She’s earned a pristine 0.11 ERA, a record of 10-1, and even threw a perfect game on March 10.
“It’s crazy. I’m really proud of our team,” she said. “We’ve been working really hard toward this and it feels great to be placed so high, especially nationally.”
Thirion and seniors McKenzie Corbitt and Jessie Valerius, who transferred in from Charlotte, have also given the Red Knights much needed leadership.
“It’s been really chaotic,” she said. “But coach V came in here, and he didn’t replace coach John. He actually made us better. He knows he relates very well to us. He knows what we’ve been through. He wants to help us and he wants to make us better.”
Valerius has been one of the team’s best hitters. She’s crushed three home runs, four triples, driven in 30 runs, stolen 10 bases and kept a .527 average.
In the end, the players say, they’re all doing it for Keyes.
“This year, we’ve come together as a team more,” Thirion said. “We play like a family on the field. We have one commonality amongst us. That’s playing for our coach. And that’s helped us.”
When Thirion first heard of her team’s national ranking walking down the halls last Monday, she smirked and kept walking.
But now, following the team’s first loss, she doesn’t care about the target a national ranking might provide. She wants to prove to others that the ranking wasn’t a mistake.
“We want to prove ourselves and that we’re going to keep that rank,” she said.