Two months ago, a playoff berth, much less a district softball title, seemed difficult for Palm Harbor University to achieve. The Hurricanes had to replace five seniors, four of whom started in the infield or at catcher and are now playing in college.
But PHU, a team many thought would struggle to remain dominant, is 5-0 with wins already against traditional county powers East Lake and Countryside. That puts the Hurricanes in position to win the conference and gives them a good chance to reach the postseason.
PHU continues to win, even when it is not expected to, because of the work the players put in at hitting the ball. On offense, the Hurricanes are as a strong as ever, scoring 10 or more runs in four of their five games. That kind of production has helped mask any difficulties PHU might have fielding as they try to assemble a new infield.
“I knew we had really good hitters on this team,” Hurricanes coach Kerry Katchuk said. “But I didn’t think we’d come around and be this good at the plate right away.”
Logyn Lilley, a second baseman who is the only returning starter in the infield, has been the catalyst on offense with a .625 average and two home runs.
“I think the team was a little nervous at the beginning of the season because we lost so many players,” Lilley said. “But we were all confident in the offense. We figured we would be able to score a lot of runs and we would have to outscore other teams.”
Other contributions have come from outfielders Katie Flanagan and Alayna Gallagher. Rachel Taylor, a goalkeeper on the soccer team that made it to the state semifinals, is the starting pitcher and will play third base at times. Lilley can relieve Taylor on the mound.
So far, everything has come together, despite not being able to play in a preseason tournament or an opening regular-season tournament because of heavy rain.
Perhaps the biggest factor in PHU’s strong start has been its ability to pull through in close games. The Hurricanes beat East Lake 2-1 by rallying with a run in the sixth and seventh innings. Against the Cougars, PHU took advantage of five errors to build a 10-7 lead after five innings and hold on for a 10-9 win.
Those tight games show just how even the county is this season. Countryside was supposed to be the dominant team with a veteran lineup. But the Cougars are battling through injuries. Alyssa Queen, the county pitcher of the year last season, is playing with a sprained ankle. Sommer Pollard was initially going to play catcher to fill the void left by the graduation of Hailee Keisling. But Pollard has been bothered by a biceps injury that has forced her to play in the outfield.
“We’ll be okay,” Countryside coach Kaylyn Bayly said. “We just have to get through a few of these injuries and communicate better on the field. We’re getting there.”
As far as the private schools, there is only one team: Canterbury. The defending Class 2A state champion returns nearly its entire starting lineup, led by a trio of freshmen — infielder Taylor Bump, catcher Danielle Romanello and pitcher Kama Woodall.
In two games this season, the Crusaders have outscored opponents a combined 20-0.
Times’ super 7
Records through Tuesday
1. Palm Harbor University (5-0): Despite losing five seniors, four of whom are playing in college, the Hurricanes have not fallen from the top of the standings. The offense has been superb with 10 or more runs scored in four games. PHU has survived close games against East Lake (2-1) and Countryside (10-9) to gain the inside track toward securing a berth in the conference championship.
2. Canterbury (2-0): The defending Class 2A state champions might be even better this year with a lineup that returns seven of nine starters, including freshmen Danielle Romanello and Kama Woodall. The Crusaders were also bolstered by the addition of pitcher Hailey Hopkins, who transferred from Bradenton Manatee.
3. Countryside (4-1): This is a veteran team with four players — Brittany Creamer (Saint Leo), Erin Jankiewicz (Southeastern), Sommer Pollard (St. Leo) and Samantha Sharpe (Eckerd) — who have already signed with colleges. That list doesn’t include Alyssa Queen, last year’s Times’ all-county pitcher of the year, who will be attending Florida State but not playing for the ’Noles.
4. East Lake (2-1): Former St. Petersburg coach Kristie Delk takes over the Eagles from Mike Estes. She inherits a strong hitting club led by Aliyah Andrews, Maddie Bertisch and Hannah Roberts. East Lake beat Seminole 7-2 Tuesday in a big district game.
5. Seminole (4-1): Megan Withrow has taken over the bulk of the pitching chores from Jennie Sittloh, who graduated. The offense has been led Mackenzie Jahn, Nicolette Myers and Katlyn Vega.
6. Northeast (3-0): Led by pitcher Riley Randolph (3-0), the Vikings outscored their first three opponents a combined 13-1. The toughest test comes Friday when Northeast plays Countryside in a district game.
7. Dunedin (3-3): After starting 3-0, the Falcons have dropped their past three, including district games against Land O’Lakes and River Ridge. Aubrey Ehlers is Dunedin’s top returning pitcher.
Players to watch
OF Aliyah Andrews, So., East Lake: The LSU commit is known for her speed, but also has shown her power with a homer in Tuesday’s win over East Lake.
P Aubrey Ehlers, Sr., Dunedin: The team’s top pitcher is trying to get on track after losing three straight, the last a 1-0 decision against River Ridge.
IF Logyn Lilley, Jr., Palm Harbor University: The county’s top hitter is batting .625 (10-for-16) to go along with three doubles and two home runs.
P Corynn Miner, So., Admiral Farragut: In two games, the Blue Jacket ace is undefeated with a 1.40 ERA and has struck out 19 batters. She also is hitting .750.
C/OF Sommer Pollard, Sr., Countryside: She currently leads the team in hitting with a .571 average and had a home run in Tuesday’s loss to PHU.
P Alyssa Queen, Sr., Countryside: She has appeared in four of five games and has 1.54 ERA with eight strikeouts.
P Riley Randolph, Jr., Northeast: So far, she has pitched every inning for the Vikings and is 3-0 with a 0.33 ERA and 24 strikeouts.
C Danielle Romanello, Fr., Canterbury: The Florida commit was a first-team, all-state selection last year and is batting .333.
P/IF Rachel Taylor, Sr., Palm Harbor University: Since returning from soccer, Taylor has resumed her role as the workhorse of the pitching staff. She will also play at third base this year.
P Mariah Watts, Sr., Lakewood: The Wisconsin signee is 3-1 with a 0.00 ERA and has struck out 39 batters. She is just as dominant on offense, hitting .500 with two home runs and six RBIs.
P Lindsey White, So., Tarpon Springs: Though the team has struggled to a 2-4 start, White has been a bright spot, particularly on offense with two home runs in an 11-7 loss to PHU last week.
P Kama Woodall, Fr., Canterbury: The county’s only 20-game winner last season currently is 1-0 with 0.00 ERA and nine strikeouts.