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For years, softball was a pitcher’s game.
And when a pitcher came along who could wield one of the rarest and most important weapons in the sport — speed — coaches became giddy. They knew that when they featured an honest-to-goodness, certified No. 1 pitcher, their team was as good as any.
In the past decade, there have been plenty of memorable teams — and pitchers.
Palm Harbor University’s Dani Hofer, Countryside’s Bree Spence, Pinellas Park’s Sara Nevins, East Lake’s Alyssa Bache. The list goes on.
There are plenty of good pitchers still around, led by Lakewood’s Mariah Watts and Seminole’s Jennie Sittloh, among others.
But so far this season, pitchers have not been able to stand as tall on the mound as others before them did.
The tide is now turning in the hitters’ favor. The results are on the scoreboard. Four county teams — Countryside, Palm Harbor University, East Lake and Seminole — are averaging at least eight runs per game. It is no surprise those teams also are ranked as the top four in the game.
“We don’t really have the powerful pitcher in this county who can just blow by everybody anymore,” Countryside coach Kaylyn Bayly said.
“There still are a lot of really good ones, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t know if it’s like some of the pitchers we’ve had in the past.
And the hitters have gotten better. There’s really strong ones out there.”
The trend started last season with the emergence of Samantha McCloskey, the Times’ county player of the year. McCloskey had a bay-area best 14 home runs and bay-area record 66 RBIs.
McCloskey has graduated, but there are plenty of others who can produce big numbers. East Lake’s Hannah Roberts has emerged as a table cleaner with 22 RBIs in 11 games this season. She is on pace to have at least 50 RBIs by the end of the season. Other teams have plenty of big bats, too.
“It’s wild to see the amount of runs scored so far,” Bayly said.
1. Countryside (5-0): Nearly everyone returns from last year’s team that made the Class 7A region semifinals. The experience is paying off with an offense that is averaging nine runs per game. Three players — Hailee Keisling (.632), Samantha Sharpe (.562) and Kelsie Sanchez (.529) — are batting over .500. Included in the Cougars’ strong start is a 9-4 win over East Lake.
2. Palm Harbor University (9-2): For the first time in 16 seasons, the Hurricanes are led by someone other than Chuck Poetter, who retired after winning three state titles. PHU also graduated county player of the year Samantha McCloskey and pitcher of the year Taylor Sabol. Kerry Katchuk takes over the program and inherits a veteran lineup with six returning starters. The Hurricanes’ only losses came against out-of-county opponents, though one was to district foe Sarasota Riverview.
3. East Lake (9-2): Despite graduating several starters the past two seasons, the Eagles still find ways to put up big numbers on offense. Four players have 10 or more RBIs, including Hannah Roberts with a whopping 22. East Lake already has played four games against teams that made the playoffs last season, winning two.
4. Seminole (3-0): A runnerup in Class 7A, District 10 last year, the Warhawks are poised for another run with a deep pitching staff that includes Jennie Sittloh, also one of the team’s top offensive threats. The schedule was light through the first two weeks but Seminole will start to get tested with games against Countryside and East Lake in the next two weeks.
5. St. Petersburg Catholic (5-0): The offense still is a work in progress, but the Barons are doing just enough to provide runs for their ace, Kelsey Humphrey, who pitched well. St. Petersburg Catholic already is in the lead for the No. 1 seed in Class 3A, District 9 and has a win vs. Shorecrest, which returns a deep lineup.
6. Canterbury (4-1): If the Crusaders are to make another deep playoff run, they will have to do it with a young team that includes four eighth-graders who will make significant contributions. Coach Jody Moore is not going to ease up on the schedule, though. A bulk of the games will be played in three out-of-area tournaments, mostly against schools in higher classifications. So far, the Crusaders are holding their own; their only loss to Countryside.
7. Lakewood (3-0): For the past two years, the Spartans have had the pitching with Mariah Watts but now they have a defense behind her. The schedule has not been strong and the biggest test will come in two weeks against Dunedin.
Players to watch
C Hailee Keisling, Sr., Countryside: Consistent hitter has had at least one hit in all but three games the past two seasons.
IF Logyn Lilley, So., Palm Harbor University: Emerged as one of the county’s best leadoff hitters last year and sets the table for the Hurricanes.
C Claire Hamilton, Sr., Palm Harbor University: The veteran will be key in helping the Hurricanes work in several new starters on the pitching staff.
P/OF Kelsey Humphrey, Sr., St. Petersburg Catholic: Despite battling a sore back and tendinitis in her shoulder, Humphrey has started strong.
IF/P Hannah Roberts, Jr., East Lake: Quickly becoming a force on offense with 22 RBIs on a team that scores runs in bunches.
OF Kelsie Sanchez, Sr., Countryside: One of the best hitters in a strong outfield and provides stellar defense.
P Bre Setree, Sr., St. Petersburg: Recorded more than 100 strikeouts last year and needs a similar performance to help young team.
IF/P Jennie Sittloh, Sr., Seminole: Her strong arm and powerful bat are big factors in the Warhawks still contending for a district title.
IF Nicole Szelest, Sr., East Lake: A strong hitter, Szelest is hitting .500 and has 11 RBIs.
P Mariah Watts, Jr., Lakewood: The Indiana recruit has struck out more than 200 batters in each of the past two seasons.
P Lindsey White, So., Tarpon Springs: She can keep the Spongers in games with her ability to strike out batters.