When Class 5A, District 8 was realigned for softball, it was as if the planets had been aligned for east Hillsborough fast-pitch junkies. Unbeknownst to the FHSAA honchos who re-sorted the districts (something done every two years when schools report their student populations), a super league was created. Durant, East Bay, Plant City and Riverview — all formidable and all former members of 6A-8 — dropped down a classification. There, they joined Newsome, a two-time defending champion in the old 5A-8. Armwood and Tampa Bay Tech rounded out the new district.
As a result, east Hillsborough now possesses two logjams: the one created daily by rush-hour traffic on State Road 60 and the one atop the county's most competitive district.
"It's a five-team race, as far as I'm concerned," East Bay coach Glenn Rodriguez said.
"It's totally different than the district we've been in," said Newsome coach Dawn Vanella, whose club finished 14-0 in last year's 5A-8 standings. "There are good teams all around us. I can't pick out one team that I know and say (they're the front-runner). Everybody has the potential to be great."
Vanella's words are reinforced by recent history and hard facts. Consider:
• Newsome, the two-time defending champ, returns seven starters.
• Riverview, a 6A region finalist in 2009, returns its top player (Kayleen Boatwright) and pitcher (Taylor McCoy). Additionally, coach Angie Slater, who led the Sharks to a pair of state titles (in 2000 and '02), is arguably the area's most respected coach.
• Durant, only two years removed from a state tournament berth, may have one of the county's most promising young teams.
• East Bay, behind St. Petersburg Times 2009 county pitcher of the year Kayla Cox, shapes up as what Rodriguez calls "probably the best team we've had in the last three or four years."
• Plant City, which had only three seniors on last year's 18-7 team, returns one of the county's top throwers in junior MacKenzie Audas.
"I think the top three teams that are going to kind of push for first and second place are us, Newsome and East Bay," Plant City coach Heidi Kouveras said. "But honestly, I think our whole district, with Riverview and Durant, every game I think is going to be a really close ballgame."
Let the logjam commence.
Preseason Super 7
Teams listed with last year's record.
1. Newsome (23-6): Seven starters are back, including staff ace and FSU commitment Bailey Schinella.
2. Plant (22-7): The Panthers, who topped Sickles in the preseason, have spots to fill but are rife with young talent.
3. Sickles (20-5): The veteran-laden Gryphons will be led by Goff twins Ashli and Courtney, both of whom are USF-bound.
4. Chamberlain (26-3): The Chiefs were stung by graduation and a knee injury to C Kasie Hatfield, but never dismiss a Bob Diez-coached team.
5. Riverview (18-11): The Sharks, who peaked at a perfect time last season, just might do it again in 2010.
6. East Bay (16-10): When staff ace Kayla Cox is on her game, the Indians can beat anyone, and we mean anyone.
7. Gaither (14-11): Al Alcala returns to the dugout, which by itself warrants making the Cowboys a sleeper pick.
In the conversation: Bloomingdale (22-7), Plant City (18-7), Durant (12-14), Tampa Catholic (16-4)
Five pitchers to watch
Kayla Cox, Sr., East Bay: The N.C. State commitment had 16 games with 10 or more strikeouts last season.
Bailey Schinella, Jr., Newsome: In 116 innings, she posted a 0.30 ERA and surrendered only five earned runs.
Chelsea Oglevie, Sr., Sickles: The Juco-bound lefty went 10-2 with a 0.96 ERA last season.
Tory Bohanan, So., Tampa Catholic: As a freshman, Bohanan allowed six extra-base hits in 88 innings.
MacKenzie Audas, Jr., Plant City: She has a versatile arsenal of pitches, not to mention 11 scholarship offers.
Five hitters to watch
Kayleen Boatwright, Jr., Riverview: The Times' reigning player of the year hit .475 with 39 RBIs last season.
Jenn Owens, Jr., Newsome: She hit .414 with 24 RBIs and four triples as a sophomore.
Stephanie Medina, Sr., Chamberlain: The USF signee hit .429 and fanned four times in 71 plate appearances.
Sarah Bowling, Sr., Plant: She was a basher (six homers) in 2009.
Jordan Alexander, So., Bloomingdale: As a freshman centerfielder, she hit .459 with four doubles and 18 RBIs.