Spring Classic draws a competitive lineup

Palm Harbor University hosts the softball tournament.
“The tournament is big for us because we get to play a different variety of teams and harder competition to see how we will compare to them,” says Chamberlain pitcher Gabby Vallee. ZACK WITTMAN   |   Times
“The tournament is big for us because we get to play a different variety of teams and harder competition to see how we will compare to them,” says Chamberlain pitcher Gabby Vallee.ZACK WITTMAN | Times
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Palm Harbor University has cruised through the high school softball season, winning 11 of its first 12 games entering the week. The hardest thing for Hurricanes coach Kerry Katchuk has been divvying up playing time for a roster that includes 12-13 players who are good enough to be full-time starters.

The pitching staff is deep, too. Four girls have made at least one appearance.

Most weeks, Katchuk has to juggle the lineup in hopes of getting as many players into the game as possible.

That will not be a problem this weekend. Starting Friday, the Hurricanes host a 16-team spring tournament at Clearwater's Eddie C. Moore Complex. PHU will play at least four games during the two-day tournament, allowing Katchuk to take advantage of his bounty of talent.

"By having so many games, we should be able to use our depth, especially with our pitchers," Katchuk said.

For the past few years, the tournament had 12 teams. It expanded to 16 this season thanks to being allowed the use of a fourth field.

It is not the quantity of teams but also the quality that makes the tournament stand out. Of the 16 teams, 13 are currently ranked in the Tampa Bay Times' HomeTeam 25 softball rankings.

"We've been it for about four of five years," said Chamberlain coach Bobby Diez, whose team won the tournament last year. "We keep coming back because there are strong teams and it's nearby."

The Chiefs (8-0 entering the week) are the top-ranked team in the area. After winning the tournament last season, Chamberlain went on to win its district and advance to the region semifinals.

"The tournament is big for us because we get to play a different variety of teams and harder competition to see how we will compare to them," Chiefs pitcher Gabby Vallee said. "They could show us things we don't see from teams we play, helping us to know what to prepare for later on."

This weekend might be the toughest yet.

"We're not going to shy away from tough competition," Katchuk said. "To play in the classification and district (9A-7) that we're in, you need to face quality opponents. It's only going to make you get better."

There also is diversity in the 16 teams participating coming from three counties. Katchuk designs the brackets so that teams face competition from another county at least once during the two-day tournament.

That helps break up the monotony of playing the same programs again and again during the regular season.

The tournament, which has been held for more than a decade, is the only one in Pinellas County during the regular season.

The attraction also has to do with the timing of the tournament, March, which is around the midpoint of the season. As a bonus, the USF/Under Armour Tournament is being held at the same time on the main fields at Eddie C. Moore, giving colleges a chance to watch — and recruit — high school talent in the bay area.

"The organizers do a good job," Diez said. "There's a good mix of teams and it's Pinellas and Hillsborough and those two counties usually get fired up about playing one another."

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