MORE from our HomeTeam writers.
In the 23 seasons the FHSAA has hosted a state softball tournament, no North Suncoast school has broken through to win a title. Hernando Christian came closest the past two seasons, battling to the state semifinals each year before bowing out. Will any team snap the area’s 0-for streak this season? A number have the potential to contend, but with so many unanswered questions entering the season, who can do it remains a mystery. All of which should make for an entertaining season.
Preseason super seven
1. River Ridge: The Royal Knights have the area’s best pitching staff, a lineup of experienced hitters and a veteran coach to bring them all together.
2. Zephyrhills: A young team with only one senior, the Bulldogs, district champs four of the past six years, will again be one of the area’s best.
3. Sunlake: The Seahawks mix young talent with experience. Five seniors will go on to play softball in college.
4. Mitchell: The Mustangs are rebuilding with possibly four freshmen in the starting lineup, but opponents will notice little difference.
5. Springstead: Coach Craig Swartout says this is the best defensive team he has ever fielded.
6. Pasco: The 4A-7 runnerup last season returns all but one player and still has Courtney Brandt, who will challenge for pitcher of the year honors.
7. Hernando: The Leopards have speed at the top of the order, power in the middle and will challenge Springstead for the county title.
These pitchers rarely give an inch, let alone runs:
Alexis Adams, Jr., Springstead: Fierce competitor can throw for power and is also one of the Eagles’ best hitters.
Ana Alberti, Sr., River Ridge: Has a variety of pitches and combines with Lakyn Shull to give River Ridge the best 1-2 pitching combo on the North Suncoast.
Courtney Brandt, Sr., Pasco: Brandt, who had 172 strikeouts last season, doesn’t get rattled easily and throws a nasty fastball.
Ashlynn Johnson, Jr., Fivay: Hudson transfer struck out 75 batters for the Cobras in 2010.
Megan Malone, So., Bishop McLaughlin: Control artist who went 8-6 with a 2.23 ERA last season as a freshman.
Jill McElderry, Fr., Fivay: Young prospect could be a great one according to numerous opposing coaches.
Lauren Pasquale, Sr., Zephyrhills: Pasquale, a natural shortstop, guided the Bulldogs to a district title and spot in the region semifinals a year ago.
Courtney Riddle, Fr., Hernando: Hernando Christian transfer led the Lions to back-to-back appearances in the state semifinals (Class A).
Lakyn Shull, Sr., River Ridge: Went 15-3 with a 0.78 ERA last season for the Royal Knights.
Cori Williams, Jr., Mitchell: With Courtney Radke gone, Williams, a hard thrower with a nice off-speed pitch, takes over as the Mustangs’ ace.
Playing the field
Standout defenders who carry a mean stick:
Emily Austin, Sr., Land O’Lakes: Senior outfielder is the leading returning hitter from 2010 squad.
Sam Berberette, Sr., Central: Will take over as Bears’ top hitter with the season-ending ACL injury to McKenzie Burns.
Briana Blanyar, Jr., Zephyrhills: Bulldogs cleanup hitter will start at catcher for the third consecutive year.
Lizzy Burchfield, So., Pasco: Excellent defender can play shortstop as well as catcher and is one of the Pirates’ best hitters.
Nicole Bylski, Sr., River Ridge: Outfielder who didn’t commit an error last season while batting .368 with 19 RBIs.
Stephanie Frances, So., Sunlake: Was a St. Petersburg Times all-North Suncoast first-teamer as a freshman after batting .500 with 22 RBIs.
Briana Hogan, Jr., Hernando Christian: The centerfielder and leadoff hitter batted .419 and drew 15 walks a year ago.
Amber Jones, Jr., River Ridge: Contact hitter who has added the long ball to her batting arsenal.
Tori Jordan, So. Zephyrhills: Utility player burst onto the scene last season and immediately established herself as one of the area’s best.
Heather Muccino, Sr., Mitchell: Reigning North Suncoast player of the year batted .566 last season.
Alex Rogers, Sr., Sunlake: UNC-Charlotte signee will spend most of her time at shortstop.
Hailey Royal, Sr., Hernando: The Leopards’ top returning batter will hit in the five hole and alternate between first and third base.
Amy Szymanowski, Jr., Bishop McLaughlin: Coach John Yaratch thinks she’ll be the Hurricanes’ first Division I signee for softball.
Class 5A, District 7
Central, Forest, Springstead, West Port
Outlook: Last year’s champ Forest is the favorite but Springstead and Central will provide a challenge.
Class 4A, District 7
Anclote, Fivay, Gulf, Hudson, Pasco, Mitchell, Ridgewood, Wesley Chapel
Outlook: Mitchell and Pasco are the front-runners but don’t overlook Fivay and Gulf.
Class 4A, District 8
Citrus, Hernando, Land O’Lakes, Lecanto, Nature Coast, River Ridge, Sunlake, Wiregrass Ranch, Zephyrhills
Outlook: The toughest district top to bottom. River Ridge is the preseason favorite.
Class 2A, District 10
Bishop McLaughlin, Brooks-DeBartolo, Calvary Christian, Indian Rocks Christian, Tampa Prep
Outlook: Watch out for Bishop McLaughlin, which could make a run for the state final four.
Class A, District 8
Bayshore Christian, Bradenton Christian, Hernando Christian, Seffner Christian
Outlook: Hernando Christian isn’t quite at the same level as the past two seasons when it made it to the state semifinals, but the Lions will still challenge Bradenton Christian for the district crown.
Class A, District 9
Academy at the Lakes, Cambridge, Canterbury, Carrollwood Day, Lakeside Christian, Tampa Bay Christian
Outlook: Canterbury has established itself as the class of the district, but a young Academy at the Lakes team will try to knock the Crusaders off their pedestal.