NICEVILLE — Danny Hensley didn’t mince words Friday night.

Timely hitting led his Niceville softball team to a 10-3 victory against Gainesville, and no hit came at a better time or was more impactful in securing the Eagles’ second straight trip to Vero Beach and the Final Four than first baseman Grace McIntosh’s fourth-inning home run.

“Grace McIntosh had that big three-run blast there,” Hensley said. “She’s been leading us these last couple weeks.”

He turned over his shoulder to watch his team celebrate in the outfield. As it had done for the baseball team a week earlier, the Niceville Fire Department had parked a fire engine along the outfield fence, and it was hosing down the players. Some were dancing. Others were sliding across the wet grass.

For the whole team, a return to the Final Four was a long time coming after falling to Fort Myers in the 7A state championship a year ago. For McIntosh, a junior, it was another battle entirely.

The Daily News Hitter of the Year in 2017, McIntosh started to feel ill in January. She tried to power through it, she said, but playing sports outdoors in the frigid winter air turned what had been the flu into something worse.

She visited four doctors in the span of a week before she was diagnosed with mononucleosis.

“It was terrible,” McIntosh said.

She felt weak. Her throat hurt so much she could not eat. She lost 10 pounds in a week and missed a week of school, she said, but the worst part was being away from the softball team.

“It sucked sitting out,” McIntosh said. “Just seeing everyone, I’m glad they were doing really well, but it was just hard not being able to help the team as I have the past three years.”

She missed roughly a month and a half of the season before making her way back into the starting lineup in mid March. When she could, she would watch the games from the stands. She said she tried to fast-track her recovery and ended up sitting out another two weeks before she finally felt well enough to play again.

“The first few practices back, it was difficult going straight into 100 percent again, but I think I settled in pretty well,” McIntosh said. “It was only a few days where I was like ‘Oh, my God, I think I’m dying,’ until it was ‘OK, this is getting better.’”

Given Hensley said McIntosh was helping to carry the team, “better” seems a bit of an understatement.

In the biggest game of Niceville’s season thus far, McIntosh went 3-for-4 with a three-run home run that broke the game open against a pitcher who could merit statewide recognition when the season ends. Gainesville’s Alissa Humphrey entered Friday’s contest with a 0.83 ERA and 331 strikeouts over 167.2 innings.

McIntosh, however, deflected much of Hensley’s praise.

“That means a lot to me because he’s very looked up to and a valued coach,” she said. “I think everyone has a big part in it. They did perfectly fine without me. I think just me being back kinda settled everyone.”

With the team now settled in, Niceville and McIntosh can focus on the next task at hand: Avenging last years state championship loss. After the FHSAA elected to postpone the state softball tournament due to weather, the Eagles are expected to play Viera in the 7A semifinals Saturday in Vero Beach.

“It feels great,” McIntosh said. “I’m so excited. I feel like this is a great team. I think we’ve improved from last year. Coach Danny says it’s basically the same team since we only lost two people last year.

“I’m just so excited to get back down there and play.”