Looking down the East Lake roster, it's hard to find a weakness in the Eagles' lineup. Can East Lake hit? Roger that. Eagles coach Mike Estes estimates he has 14 to 16 players that he can insert in the lineup with positive results. The Eagles have power hitters, high-average hitters and players that simply get on base, perhaps the biggest key for any successful softball squad. "We're going to have to keep battling every week to keep a spot in the lineup because we have so many people and only nine spots in the lineup," junior Hayley Davis said. What about defense? Yep, East Lake has that too.
Kirsten Bembnowski prowls the outfield, ready to pounce on any ball destined for the gap. The infield, led by gritty second baseman Sydney Dinelli, might be the team's strength. And catcher Kelsey Oonk is like another coach on the field, according to Estes.
Okay, but how's the pitching?
Check, check and check.
Davis was thrust into a starting role two seasons ago as a freshman when Kim Mazzapica went down with an injury. All she has done is win, though she says pitching isn't her forte. Caitlyn Smith is a control artist who spelled Davis successfully last season. Freshman Kristen Berlo throws in the mid 60s and might be the county's top newcomer.
And that's even before factoring in All-Suncoast Player of the Year Alyssa Bache, who was 21-7 with a 0.52 ERA for Countryside last season. Bache transferred during the summer and could be the final piece for a possible Eagles' state championship run.
"I've got a huge luxury," Estes said. "Most teams can't even get one pitcher, much less multiple pitchers. I've got six I can go to."
The Eagles finished as district runnerup last season, bowing out in the region quarterfinals, but this season, anything less than a trip to state could be viewed as a disappointment.
"There's such a high expectation with us right now, we have nowhere to go but down theoretically," Estes said, tongue-in-cheek. "We haven't changed much from last year. We lost one senior but mostly, all we've done is add."
Others vying to unseat East Lake for the title of Pinellas' best team:
The Crusaders finished one win shy of a Class A state championship and, aside from East Lake, might be Pinellas' best hope for the county's first title since 2005. Macey Hall, the team's heart and soul since the program's inception, has graduated. But the Crusaders return nearly everybody else, including pitcher Krissy Longstreet, who baffled opponents in the postseason with her wide assortment of pitches.
The biggest question: Who's going to pitch now that Bache is at East Lake? Cougars coach Kaylyn Bayly has three pitchers who will all get their chances — holdover Devika Choo Chew, senior Erika Queen, who has never played in high school before, and volleyball standout Davionna DiSalvatore. The Cougars will be stronger defensively and should be better offensively than a year ago. LSU commit Ayanna Andrews provides plenty of speed and is a threat to score whenever she gets on base. A preseason 2-1 win over Pinellas Park was a boost.
No longer are the Warriors battling Seminole for the district crown. This season, in 4A-10, Osceola will have to get by Braden River and Lakewood Ranch to win its first district title since 2006. The Warriors have the talent — 14 players return including senior stalwarts Meghan Edwards and Carly Van Auken as well as junior pitcher Jordan Bennett. All three were first team PCAC South county selections last season.
Palm Harbor University
Perhaps the likeliest to knock off East Lake for top honors in the county. FSU signee Madison O'Brien is a frontrunner for Player of the Year honors and has been a mainstay in the Hurricanes' infield for four seasons. Seniors Jackie Katchuk and Laura Herndon are slick fielders that can hit. Taylor Sabol burst onto the scene last year as a freshman.
The Patriots reached the playoffs for only the second time last season, but their path to the postseason became infinitely easier with East Lake and PHU no longer in the same district. This year marks the last in the storied high school career of USF signee Sara Nevins, one of the best pitchers ever in Pinellas. And here's an unnerving tidbit for area hitters: Nevins, by all accounts, is throwing harder than ever.
The Warhawks have won three straight district titles but will be hard pressed to make it four in a row with East Lake joining their district. Standout pitcher Sarah Read had a monster year on the mound and at the plate. With seniors Jen LaBau, Amanda Nette and Emily Crawford returning as well as junior Tiffany Race, the Warhawks feature one of the county's most potent lineups.
St. Petersburg Catholic
Last season ended in heartbreak for the Barons. Featuring arguably its strongest lineup ever, the Barons finished one win shy of making it to state, falling to McKeel Academy 5-3 in the region final. SPC lost four seniors but returns the heart of its lineup in sophomores Kristy Fudge and Madison Saganowich and junior Nikki Parker. And of course there's Notre Dame commit Chloe Saganowich. All she has done is win 42 games as the Barons' ace the past two seasons. She'll see some time at shortstop, her natural position, coach Tommy Fabian said.