Two months ago, a playoff berth, much less a district softball title, seemed difficult for Palm Harbor University to achieve. The Hurricanes had to replace five seniors, four of whom started in the infield or at catcher and are now playing in college.
But PHU, a team many thought would struggle to remain dominant, is 5-0 already with wins against traditional county powers East Lake and Countryside. That puts the Hurricanes in position to win the conference and gives them a good chance to reach the postseason.
PHU continues to win because of the work the players put in at hitting the ball. On offense, the Hurricanes are as a strong as ever, scoring 10 or more runs in four of their five games. That kind of production has helped mask any difficulties PHU might have fielding as it tries to assemble a new infield.
"I knew we had really good hitters on this team," coach Kerry Katchuk said. "But I didn't think we'd come around and be this good at the plate right away."
Logyn Lilley, a second baseman and the only returning starter in the infield, has been the catalyst on offense with a .625 average and two home runs.
"I think the team was a little nervous at the beginning of the season because we lost so many players," Lilley said. "But we were all confident in the offense. We figured we would be able to score a lot of runs and we would have to outscore other teams."
Other contributions have come from outfielders Katie Flanagan and Alayna Gallagher. Rachel Taylor, a goalkeeper on the soccer team that made it to the state semifinals, is the starting pitcher and will play third base at times. Lilley can relieve Taylor on the mound.
So far, everything has come together, despite not being able to play in a preseason tournament or an opening regular-season tournament because of heavy rain.
Perhaps the biggest factor in PHU's strong start has been its ability to pull through in close games. The Hurricanes beat East Lake 2-1 with runs in the sixth and seventh innings. Against the Cougars, PHU took advantage of five errors to build a 10-7 lead after five innings and held on for a 10-9 win.
Those tight games show just how even the county is this season. Countryside was supposed to be the dominant team with a veteran lineup. But the Cougars are battling injuries. Alyssa Queen, the county pitcher of the year last season, is playing with a sprained ankle. Sommer Pollard was initially going to play catcher to fill the void left by the graduation of Hailee Keisling. But Pollard has been bothered by a biceps injury that has forced her to play in the outfield.
"We'll be okay," Countryside coach Kaylyn Bayly said. "We just have to get through a few of these injuries and communicate better on the field. We're getting there."
As far as the private schools, there is only one team: Canterbury. The defending Class 2A state champion returns nearly its entire starting lineup, led by a trio of freshmen — infielder Taylor Bump, catcher Danielle Romanello and pitcher Kama Woodall.
In two games this season, the Crusaders have outscored opponents a combined 20-0.