The three best players on the North Suncoast, clearly, are Pasco's Colena Lazar, Land O'Lakes' Michelle Bradley and Mitchell's Olivia Kline. How do they rank? The coaches seem pretty confident Bradley is No. 1. They love her versatility (she can play any position, including catcher), her toughness (in big games, she is sterling) and her bat (North Suncoast-record 10 home runs last year). Lazar is the most dominant pitcher after winning 38 games the past two seasons and striking out nearly 400. She also hit seven homers last season. Kline hit .419 last year with nine homers and seven doubles and this year should emerge as a mound ace.
Softball season starts today, and it looks a lot like yesterday. The top teams? Same as last year. The top players? Arguably the three best from last season are back. So what else is new? Well, looking around, we wonder.
1. Land O'Lakes
Michelle Bradley (21 of 27 hits were for extra bases) is too good and gets lots of help from Loren Smith (.333, four triples), Jessica Austin (.381), Kasey Murray (.299) and Sam Adamo (.382, 23 stolen bases).
Colena Lazar might be the best pitcher around. The Pirates have some nice sticks but holes to fill in the lineup.
Olivia Kline is a force (nine homers), but one thing has to change: Eight of 10 losses in 2008 were by one run.
4. River Ridge
Lost their ace but have potential replacements and solid bats in Sarah Simon (.513) and Madison Morris (.471).
Seven of the 13 Bucs are freshmen or sophomores, but one of them is pitcher Sara Hill, a 10-game winner last year.
6. Nature Coast
The Sharks' junior trio of Lizzy Olmstead (.395), Jen Marshall (.377) and Ashley Antczak (17-5 from the circle) will keep them in the district hunt.
Wily veteran Craig Milburn lost a ton of talent but is 4-for-4 in playoff appearances and 82-30 since taking over in 2005.
Former Land O'Lakes and Saint Leo pitching standout Desiree Crouteau is an assistant at Bishop McLaughlin. Hernando County coaching icon Ernie Chatman takes over at Hernando Christian.
If there is a season that the three-year run of Class 4A, District 8 final pitting Pasco against Zephyrhills ends, this might be it. Zephyrhills lost a lot of talent and hasn't been able to replace it. And Gulf will have better pitching, led by the improved Sara Hill. Coach Rick Hohenthaner believes one day she will land in the same class of former local standouts such as Kiki Van Holt (River Ridge) and Amy Birch (Ridgewood). If not Gulf, look out for Nature Coast, which was 19-6 last season.
In Class 6A-7, Mitchell has to deal with a very good Countryside team and stud pitcher Alyssa Bache but compares favorably with the rest of the teams.
In 5A-7, it's really hard to envision anyone but Land O'Lakes and River Ridge colliding again.
Bishop McLaughlin should contend in 2A-9, and Hernando Christian's three-team A-6 district should mean a sixth straight trip to the playoffs.
Pitcher Amber Hay gives Academy at the Lakes a shot in A-11.
Nearly every coach we spoke to said Sunlake (6-16 last year) will surprise some people this year. The Seahawks, who beat Hernando 6-4 in a preseason game, had some young talent last year. And while not ready to contend for a district title, they certainly can determine who doesn't win it if they can find some pitching.
By the numbers
1 Times Gulf has made the state playoffs (2005 was its lone trip).
2 Games River Ridge's Sarah Simon and Pasco's Lucy Schneider were held hitless last season, tops on the North Suncoast.
5 Straight playoff berths by Hernando Christian, Pasco and Zephyrhills.
7 More RBIs than anyone else Simon had last year in leading the North Suncoast with 48.
17 Years since a state championships was won by the North Suncoast (Ridgewood in 1992).
19 Multiple hit games by Schneider in 26 games in 2008.
.521 Schneider's average in 2008, best among returning players.
1.014 Slugging percentage of Michelle Bradley in 2008.
John C. Cotey will be covering softball on the North Suncoast this season. E-mail him at email@example.com.
Keep an eye on River Ridge sophomore Lakyn Shull, who takes over as its ace. Sunlake's Samantha Dittman hit .414 last year and already has a preseason homer to start off 2009. Gulf's Taylor Bruckner moves into the cleanup spot, hitting behind the likes of Brittany Mayhill and Jessica Santoli. Pasco sophomore Courtney Brandt and junior Megan Newsome last year combined for seven doubles, four triples and four homers.
Some players who will push their way into the upper echelon this season:
• Land O'Lakes outfielder Loren Smith is going to have a big year.
• Pasco infielder Lucy Schneider is the most consistent and underrated player in the county.
• River Ridge's Sarah Simon hit .513 with 48 RBIs last year and can do it again. Teammate Madison Morris is nice, too.
• Nature Coast pitcher Ashley Antczak might have a district title in her arm.
• Gulf speedy outfielder Brittany Mayhill should be the top Buc and already has committed to USF.