NEW PORT RICHEY — There’s a drill Gulf uses from time to time, where the Buccaneers’ defense must get 21 consecutive outs. Any error by any player, and the team must start over at zero.
The pressure builds with each hit as the Bucs try to do what they could not accomplish in season-ending, 1-0 losses each of the past two seasons: Close out a defensive battle when it matters most.
“I didn’t have to remind anybody,” coach Rick Hohenthaner said. “They reminded me that they’re ready to move forward and they want to make amends for not finishing.”
Gulf — 5-0 this spring entering Wednesday’s game against Hudson — have two key reasons to believe they can get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
Its confidence begins with Madison Morlan, one of the North Suncoast’s top pitchers. The junior was strong last season, striking out a batter per inning and posting a 1.37 ERA.
But she has been even better this spring. She entered Wednesday with a 5-0 record and 24 strikeouts against three walks. Of her five runs allowed, only one was earned.
“She knows how to handle her pitches, and she knows how to put a little oomph behind it,” catcher Nikki Sedivy said.
Hohenthaner has noticed a deeper intensity in his ace late in games this season. She always started strong but has become fearless in the final innings.
“When she sees blood and it’s time to go, she’s there,” Hohenthaner said.
Morlan’s growth is part of a standout junior class’ progression from talented underclassmen to uncontested leaders.
Sedivy, Morlan, Tarra Rice and Rachel Gardner form one of Pasco County’s most talented cores. Rice has orally committed to Jackson State, and Gardner is off to a hot start (.562 average, team-best six RBIs).
Sedivy has solidified herself as one of the county’s top catchers with a .600 average and no stolen bases allowed this spring.
“She’s a wiz behind the plate,” Morlan said. “She’s so quick, not only physically but mentally.”
The Bucs have other key parts, too. Freshman shortstop Britney Pressler leads the team with a .625 average and four extra-base hits, and sophomore centerfielder Hanna McCarthy has improved, too.
But the core juniors have led Gulf through two years of ups and downs. Morlan took a 1-0 loss in the 2011 district semifinals against Mitchell. Last year, the Bucs soared through a 10-game winning streak and earned the top seed in the Class 5A, District 8 tournament — before allowing cheap hits and falling to Fivay in another devastating semifinal loss.
“Whenever we give up a hit that’s similar to those, we always think about it,” Morlan said.
And this time, in the late innings of must-win games, Gulf intends to do something about it.
Seven others to watch
River Ridge (4-0): The Royal Knights have a realistic shot at another trip to the Class 6A region finals. They’re loaded with college prospects. Jada Power has signed with Jacksonville, while junior Morgan Tolle (James Madison) and sophomore Kenzi Maguire (Arkansas) have already orally committed to Division I programs.
Pasco (4-2): The Pirates were down (by their lofty standards) in 2012, with a loss to Fivay in the district title game and a first-round playoff exit for the fourth time since 2004. Pasco’s early blemishes are close losses to Gulf and Fivay by a combined three runs. Keep an eye on Kelli Parker, who’s batting .667 with 11 RBIs and six extra-base hits.
Fivay (4-2): The Falcons continued their quick rise, from a winless season in 2011 to a district title last spring. Now comes the hard part: Sustaining success. Fivay has stumbled twice, against Hudson and Zephyrhills. If the Falcons hope to make another playoff run and improve on last year’s first-round exit, they’ll need another big season from Jill McElderry, who leads the team with nine RBIs at the plate and 55 strikeouts in 32 innings on the mound.
Zephyrhills (5-2): The Bulldogs can put up runs in a hurry, averaging seven per game. That includes 11 in a shutout win over Hudson and nine more in a blowout victory over Fivay. Tori Jordan (.462 average) and Lindsey Hupp (13 RBIs) already rank among the North Suncoast’s most productive offensive players. Don’t forget about pitcher Karisten Deem, who has given up only eight earned runs in 322/3 innings.
Mitchell (5-2): The Mustangs will look to improve on last year’s trip to the Class 6A region semifinals. They have a loaded young nucleus with junior Cassidy Neptune (.550 average, 10 RBIs) and sophomore Madison Stanilou (.500 average). But a deeper run would likely mean having to beat River Ridge, which already earned a 7-0 win over Mitchell this spring.
Hernando (4-2): The young Leopards were solid last year and are poised to break out in 2013. Morehead State commit Tana McDaniel is off to a blazing start with a .650 average, and sophomore UCF commit Megan Lane has stolen 10 bases in six games. Courtney Riddle is one of Hernando County’s top all-around players with 51 strikeouts and a 1.15 ERA and a .391 batting average.
Wiregrass Ranch (5-3): The Bulls have looked good in the North Suncoast, compiling a 4-0 record with three blowout victories and a 7-6 win over Nature Coast. But Hillsborough County’s district foes make a tougher schedule. Sophomore Shailynn Morales has driven in a run in four of her six games.