Sunday, April 22, 2018

Hillsborough County softball preview

DOVER — The moment is one Strawberry Crest's softball team would just as soon forget.

Problem is, the coach won't let it.

Last season, after cruising to a 21-2 regular season that was the best in school history, after winning the program's second district title and first playoff game, the Chargers were stonewalled by Bradenton Lakewood Ranch 5-1 in the region semifinals.

The game was a nightmare on many levels. A potent lineup averaging 11 runs a game during the regular season was handcuffed. A Gold Glove-caliber defense leaked. Pitches that confounded hitters all year were flat with little movement.

When Maddie Turner popped up for the final out, the then-senior crashed to her knees in the middle of the baseline.

"It just wasn't a good game for us," Strawberry Crest catcher Mia Fung said.

In January, Chargers coach Mindy Miltner assembled her players in the dugout. With seven players returning for their senior year, including six who will play in college, the majority of the team from the heartbreak just nine months prior was present.

Miltner asked each player to think back to the loss, to remember how much it hurt, to recount every mistake spelling the difference between victory and defeat.

Then Miltner had her team reenact the final out.

They used a substitute for Turner, now at Hillsborough Community College, and, collectively, the players emerged from the dugout to pick up and console their teammate.

"We got that feeling back, and we talked to the girls about it," Miltner, in her fifth season at Strawberry Crest, said. "They understood. We have to keep reminding them that they have to stay hungry and can't take anybody lightly."

That point was reinforced last week, when the Chargers committed two errors and lost to Bloomingdale 6-3. That came after a preseason whipping of state power Bartow and a 3-0 start in which they won by an average of 13 runs.

"We know we have a lot of talent. Not many high schools can say all but one of their seniors is signed; especially to big schools," said shortstop Megan Reed, who will play at Florida next year.

"We know what we're capable of. And we kind of got on cruise control and thought we would breeze through that game when (Bloomingdale) came here for a fight and we didn't."

Strawberry Crest, currently 4-1, enters this season as a prohibitive favorite to win another district title and make a deep run in the postseason.

Fung, a USF signee and the Times' Hillsborough County Player of the Year in 2013, returns along with three others — Reed, centerfielder Cacey Simmons and pitcher Sammy Tyler — who were all-county first-teamers. The lineup features dangerous hitters at all nine spots.

Tyler and sophomore Scottie Todd are pitchers who can shut teams down. And when opponents put balls in play, the defense can scoop them up with regularity.

The biggest obstacle for Strawberry Crest is how well it adjusts to being the hunted rather than the hunter.

"I feel like we have a big target on our backs this year because of how well we did last year," Simmons said.

"When teams see Strawberry Crest on the schedule, they come to play. But I think we have a really good team this year, and I feel like we have the talent to go all the way."

Hillsborough Super 7

1. Bloomingdale (4-0): The Bulls' perfect start includes a shutout of a Plant City team that made the region semifinals last year and a 6-3 win over Strawberry Crest.

2. Strawberry Crest (4-1): Aside from the blemish against Bloomingdale, the Chargers have outscored opponents 57-3. Senior Sammy Tyler has struck out 21 batters over 14 innings and is hitting .545.

3. Alonso (3-0): Florida State signee Jessica Warren is off to another fast start. She had a triple and a home run in a shutout of Riverview this week.

4. Tampa Catholic (4-0): The Crusaders haven't had a close game yet and already have thumped Zephyrhills and Berkeley Prep. Cristina Clauberg and Hera Varmah have combined to go 17-of-22 with 13 RBIs.

5. Newsome (3-0): The Wolves gave Wharton its only loss. Sophomores Claire Feldman and Rian Medley lead a pitching staff that hasn't allowed a run.

6. Plant (3-1): Danielle Scott is one of the county's early leaders with two home runs.

7. Chamberlain (3-1): Last year's region semifinalists have scored at least five runs in every game, including 17 in a win over Hillsborough this week.

Also considered: Berkeley Prep, Plant City, Academy of the Holy Names, Durant

Players to watch

C Mia Fung, Strawberry Crest: The USF signee and reigning Times county player of the year is batting .692 and already has five extra-base hits.

OF Rachel Carson, Freedom: The Maine recruit carries a .667 average for the defending Class 7A state finalists.

C/SS Kristin Hoover, Berkeley Prep: The Cal signee has driven in 15 runs through six games and had a two-homer, six-RBI performance against Tampa Prep.

P Sloan Hammons, Durant: She has posted a 0.66 ERA with 25 strikeouts and only four hits allowed over 102/3 innings for the Cougars.

P/SS Kimberly Dick, Leto: The sophomore has started the season well with a .571 average and five RBIs at the plate and 17 strikeouts over 12 innings on the mound for the 3-1 Falcons.

P Taylor Baker, East Bay: The Indians are 3-1 in large part because of their senior, who has allowed only four earned runs and struck out 31 batters over 311/3 innings.

UTIL Hannah Pridemore, Newsome: The second-team all-county pick as a freshman is avoiding the sophomore slump (.556 average and a triple).

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