BROOKSVILLE — After January practices, Central’s future cornerstone and present star would stay on the field to work out more.
Lefty freshman Kaeleen Koehler would face senior Katie McCarthy and watch her right-handed teammate’s pop and speed uncork.
Koehler would mirror McCarthy’s movements to copy the smooth swing of Hernando County’s top hitter and try to move the Bears into a new era after a decade of struggles.
“They help each other,” coach Tyson Ellis said. “It’s about everybody helping each other out.”
That chemistry and the development of Koehler and McCarthy have taken the Bears to success they haven’t experienced in years.
Central had its first 10-win season in 10 years last spring and enters this weekend’s Leopard Softball Slam tournament second in Class 6A, District 6. The Bears (11-4) have topped last season’s win total and hold realistic hopes of making the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
Koehler and McCarthy are two of the biggest reasons.
Thanks to hours in the batting cage, after practice or late at night, McCarthy has improved on a stellar junior season. The State College of Florida signee has added even more power to her game, hitting a North Suncoast-best five home runs and ranking among the area’s leaders in doubles (nine), average (.562) and RBIs (24).
“I can’t say enough about that kid,” Ellis said.
McCarthy has made even bigger emotional impacts for the building program. She coaches from the field, encourages struggling pitchers on the mound and has played out of position to fill a hole at shortstop.
Despite seasons of struggles, McCarthy has coaxed out positive feelings — in practice, on the field or in the dugout.
“I just feel like these girls, they work so hard day in and day out,” McCarthy said. “You need something good to look toward.”
Koehler’s strong season on the mound and an improved defense have justified McCarthy’s optimism.
Koehler has posted a 7-4 record with a 2.36 ERA with 66 strikeouts in 71.1 innings. She’s earned one-run victories over foes like Crystal River and Lecanto after spending the summer playing up a class against U-18 teams.
“She’s very confident, and it shows,” Ellis said. “I think the girls feed off of it around her, too.”
Koehler’s presence can be seen better in pressure-packed situations than through stats.
She loaded the bases in the seventh inning of a district game against defending region finalist Springstead, as her team tried to keep a 4-3 lead. Koehler forced the next two batters to pop out to end the threat and give the Eagles their first district loss since 2010.
“She’s been a huge part of this season — huge,” McCarthy said. “We probably wouldn’t be where we are right now without her.”
Koehler credits McCarthy for boosting her performance, especially at the plate, where she hits .352 with 20 RBIs.
The time spent studying McCarthy’s swing taught Koehler to keep her front elbow up. In one early-season game, Koehler failed to follow that advice and fouled off a pitch. McCarthy got her attention from the dugout to correct the problem.
Koehler hit the next ball out of the park.
“I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Koehler said. “She’s a perfect role model for me.”
Leopard Softball Slam
Where: Tom Varn Park, Brooksville
Friday: Hernando vs. Anclote, 9; Citrus vs. Chaminade Madonna, 9:30; River Ridge vs. Weeki Wachee, 10; Lecanto vs. Fivay, 11; Countryside vs. Poinciana, 11:30; Nature Coast vs. Pasco, noon; Mitchell vs. St. Petersburg Catholic, 1; Gulf vs. Central, 1:30; quarterfinals, 3, 5, 5:30 and 7
Saturday: Semifinals, 11 and 11:30; third-place game, 7; final, 7:30
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.