LAND O'LAKES — Having the bulk of the roster returning from the program's first-ever playoff participant is a great start for Sunlake High's softball squad. But a couple of youthful additions have the Seahawks aspiring for more.
Freshmen Jenna Lord and Kendra Falby won't just start right away, they'll slot into the heart of an already-strong Seahawks lineup.
"They fit in perfectly," said welcoming senior Mariah Melendez.
Even before Melendez was set to take the mound for Sunlake's season opener Tuesday, the freshmen had already made an impact. In two preseason victories against perennial playoff contenders from Class 8A, Bloomingdale and Freedom, Sunlake's strengthened lineup combined to score 17 runs.
And there was quite the catch made by Falby.
"The one time I'd seen something like that was on National Geographic, and it was a gazelle being chased by a lion," marveled seventh-year coach Nelson Garcia. "It was hit deep, in back of our leftfielder and (Falby) came running out of center to catch it. The girl is fast. I mean, fast. And a lot of power, too."
Five years into playing the sport, Falby is already committed to the University of Florida. And Lord, who will play shortstop when Melendez is pitching and can play catcher also, will go right in at clean-up hitter.
But the returners, along with plenty of ability, will bring with them added motivation.
The Seahawks reached the playoffs for the first time, overcoming a 4-0 deficit in the Class 7A, District 8 semifinals to beat Osecola 9-7. They then lost a classic 1-0, 15-inning game at Mitchell in the district final.
The high of making the playoffs was immediately lessened, and was followed by an 11-3 region loss at Braden River.
"The next step, everybody's goal this year, we want district now," Garcia said. "They got a taste of it last year; this time we want to win it. We want (the playoff game) to be here (at Sunlake). Not Braden River. That Mitchell game took a lot out of us, out of the girls. But it's motivation."
The Bradenton team, which plays in 7A-9 alongside four Hillsborough County squads, made the state semifinals before losing to eventual state champ Fort Myers. Sunlake is still in a very strong group, with full-fledged rival Mitchell as the other Pasco team, the rest Pinellas foes paced by Osceola.
Sunlake hit .360 as a squad last year, C/1B Emma Sica batting .500 and terrific 3B Bella Huff finishing just below that mark. First baseman Riley Baxter provides pop (three homers). All are seniors. Jenna Gabrielli, now a sophomore, supplied the second most RBIs on the squad (19).
Another player who contributed well as an underclassman, now-junior Shea Forgas, slots in as the starter at second base, making for a potentially electric defensive infield.
"She's doing a fantastic job, real smooth, covers the gaps and is hitting the ball well also," Garcia said.
Paige Maseda is another junior who will man the corner outfield spots, Garcia praising her work ethic, and Falby looks to have the middle of the outfield secured.
As for pitching, Melendez and junior Morgan Boudreau return as does Alyssa Cordoba, who came through in the clutch to get the victory as a freshman in the playoff-clinching defeat of Osceola.
They might have to share the circle with some others, but Garcia won't divulge just yet, channeling Forrest Gump.
"We're starting with three pitchers," he said. "I think we're gonna have a lot of more depth this year. A couple of additions have fueled the team even more, and sparked that life in the ones we already have. They're hungry. And … that's all I'm gonna say about that."
Though it doesn't sound like she'll need to, Melendez (also a .386 hitter who led the Seahawks in stolen bases) offers to pitch "until my arm falls off" as part of the team's mantra.
"Pressure is good, but we don't have that here," she said. "Our expectations? Coach expects us to give it our all. There should never be a time where he thinks, 'Oh my gosh, she's only giving 50 percent.' We all give 100. That's what's expected out of each and every one of us. We're all a team. We all need to give the same amount."
If the talent level on the Seahawks comes to fruition the way it appears possible, the amount of wins — postseason included — could be pretty impressive.
Sunlake went 18-7 last season, one shy of the school mark; the 2011 team went 19-3 before being upset in the district quarterfinals.
Albeit preseason, beating Bloomingdale 11-1 is not a bad indicator for 2018.
"I think we shocked a lot of people. Sent a little message out," Garcia said. "I think this team here has to be the best in (my) seven seasons. They know the expectations, and they're bringing them with 'em, which is awesome. If we play our game, I think we can go pretty far."