SPRING HILL — Springstead softball is coming off the best campaign in school history, where the accolades just kept piling up for the young club. And there are no signs of slowing down for the Eagles.
After going 27-2 and making the first region final appearance in seven tries, expectations are high both inside and outside the dugout. Led by ace pitcher Kama Woodall and slugger Paige Pfent, Springstead was a force to deal with on both sides of the ball.
Craig Swartout, entering his 15th season as coach, has plenty of talent at his disposal, but he also has his hands full. Of the 12 players on last year's roster, 11 are back in uniform for the Eagles. In addition, the team welcomes two incoming freshmen, both travel ball phenoms.
"It's tough to coach a team like this, but it's also so exciting to see what this can turn into," he said. "On the outside, it looks like the easiest job to coach a team with this much talent, but in reality, it's probably the toughest because there are so many girls that deserve to get on the field."
Of the returners, the most accomplished would be Woodall. The senior hurler has been committed to North Carolina State since last season. She is focused on winning with this team in her final go round.
Woodall reached the Class 2A state semifinals as the starting pitcher for Canterbury as a sophomore. She tossed three consecutive playoff shutouts that season before falling 1-0 in the final four. The previous two seasons, Woodall helped Canterbury go the distance, winning the Class 2A state championship in her freshman and eighth grade years.
Last season was a similar story. Woodall and the Eagles reached the elite eight with their eyes on the state finals, but Land O'Lakes ace Shannon Saile had other ideas. In a terrific pitching matchup, Woodall came up on the wrong side of a 1-0 final score as Saile threw a no-hitter.
"Both of those girls pitched their hearts out," Swartout said. "It just goes to show that when you get that far, everything matters. You have to take advantage of every walk, every error, and every extra base you can."
Woodall has accrued 646 strikeouts with only 92 walks in her four years at this level. She has a record of 63-18 with a 1.13 earned run average, all while never being eliminated in the postseason before region finals.
Even with all those eye-popping numbers, Woodall may not be the most anticipated return for Springstead. Last season, Pfent burst onto the scene with one of the best offensive seasons in local history. The then-sophomore catcher broke numerous team and county records with her .549 batting average, 12 home runs and 52 RBIs.
With her back in the lineup cementing the cleanup spot, the offense should be more potent than ever.
Slick-fielding shortstop Abby Oliver is signing with Warner University in Lake Wales to continue her softball career later this month. The attention she received from the Royals coaching staff was well-deserved. Besides her stellar defensive play, Oliver hit .450 last season with five triples, three homers, eight stolen bases and a team-leading 42 runs scored.
There is an adage about baseball and softball: Successful teams are built up the middle. It's no coincidence that the strength of Springstead's lineup is at catcher, pitcher and shortstop.
"It's great to be solid up the middle, but on our team, Emily (Kolwicz) is as good a third baseman as you'll find," Swartout said. "Kayla (Cruz) is a great first baseman, and our corner outfielders are solid no matter who we put out there. I'm not big into the individuals, but you would be hard-pressed to find a position where we don't have an advantage."
Capping off that line is Delaney Woodall, younger sister of Kama. She handles centerfield for the Eagles. Despite not putting up huge numbers at the plate, the junior is arguably the fastest player on the team, gliding around the outfield making difficult plays look relatively easy.
The newcomers to this stout lineup are freshmen Jenna Ryan and Hannah Rizzuto. Ryan and Rizzuto are familiar with each other and their new teammates. Most of these players competed together at Spring Hill Dixie before moving on to play with their respective club and school teams.
"The climate has really changed since I began coaching," Swartout said. "The girls are getting better at a much younger age. It's a double-edged sword sometimes, but we're in a good spot. We have freshmen through seniors getting on the field for this team."
Ryan was one of only two middle school players on her club team, Next Level Softball Elite, last year. She has become one of the most highly regarded young pitchers in the state with a true dedication to her craft. If she is the apprentice to Woodall, the future could be bright at Springstead for some time to come.
For this current roster, however, the future is now. Springstead has more talent than last season in some places, and one thing it didn't have going into last year: experience.
"With the players we have coming back, we had some success last season," Swartout said. "I would hope that we would be able to at least repeat that success."