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Palm Harbor University rides youth movement to state

Palm Harbor University softball coach Kerry Katchuk has always thought of his team more in terms of the future than the present.

After all, the Hurricanes have 13 freshmen and sophomores on the roster. There were older, more experienced teams that had waited their turn at the top, and PHU had not served the long apprenticeship that seems mandatory before winning a district title or making a state semifinal appearance.

The timetable Katchuk had in mind was gradual improvement over a three-year span. Last season was supposed to be a write-off with the Hurricanes adjusting to having so many young players. PHU stayed in contention in 2016, winning 14 games before falling in the district semifinals.

Naturally, Katchuk expected some improvement this season. But he could not have predicted this kind of turnaround.

The Hurricanes (28-2) have doubled their win total from last season, vaulted to the top of the Tampa Bay Times top 25 softball rankings and advanced to the state semifinals for the first time since 2005, the year the program went undefeated en route to its second straight title.

"I knew we could be good," Katchuk said. "I just didn't know we would be this good."

The district (Class 9A-8) PHU belongs to routinely produces state title contenders. Newsome won the title two years ago. Alonso was in the state championship game last year.

The Hurricanes were dominant against district foes this year, sweeping Alonso and Newsome. PHU enters today's semifinal game against Jupiter on a 15-game win streak.

"I think the players are so young that nothing fazes them," Katchuk said.

That was evident last week on a trip to Kissimmee for the region final against Osceola. The team bus broke down and the players headed to a nearby McDonald's to wait before carpooling with parents.

"The girls just got something to drink and eat and went about their business," Katchuk said.

The sophomores have made significant contributions.

• Outfielder Mia Buffano, who committed to Florida as an eighth-grader, has hit eight homers this season and has 15 in her two years with the Hurricanes.

• Pitcher Savanna Bennett is 11-0.

• Outfielder Faith Allen scored the winning run against playoff-bound Boca Ciega in the regular season and hit a home run against the Pirates in the conference championship game.

It is not just young players who are doing all the work. Taylor Scott, a senior who has signed with North Florida, has started — and won — all three playoff games so far. She will start again in the state semis.

Scott said a big reason for the Hurricanes' improvement is the coaching staff, which includes Sam McCloskey (UCF) and Megan Copeland (Barry), two former standouts who went on to play in college.

"Our coaching staff is a huge part in the turnaround," Scott said. "It also has a lot to do with building the confidence and working together as a team on defense and as well on offense.

"From the very first practice, I recognized how strong we are from every part of the field. Even though we are young, we have the ability to win it all."

State softball

At Historic Dodgertown, Vero Beach. Admission is $12 at the gate and parking is $10.

9A semifinal: Palm Harbor University vs. Jupiter, 7:50 p.m. today

9A final: 8:05 p.m. Saturday

Palm Harbor University rides youth movement to state 05/17/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 17, 2017 11:55am]
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