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Packers, Cougars start fast

TOP TEAMS: LARGO, COUNTRYSIDE, SEMINOLE, GIBBS, BOCA CIEGA, EAST LAKE

The season has just begun and already the best teams in the county are proving their reputation. Largo and Countryside have the best records so far. Largo, which fell in the sectional tournament last season to powerhouse Naples Barron Collier, lost four key seniors but returns an impressive nucleus.

Pitchers Jill Weaver and Krista Allen (also a centerfielder) join an all-sophomore infield including Leslie Allen at second base and Michelle Bennett at shortstop. The Packers are always well-coached contenders and this year, with Chuck Poetter moving from assistant to head coach, they should continue their county domination.

Like Largo, Countryside also is young, starting three freshmen, but that hasn't seemed to bother the Cougars. Coaches say senior Janeen Sobush is the county's best catcher, supporting sophomore Christen Campbell and freshman Kasey Dowd on the mound. Senior Lisa Schaus is key at third base, while freshman Tracy Carlton starts at second.

Seminole is loaded with pitchers _ four strong ones, including senior Kelly Miller. Hitting is the only worry. Seniors Stephanie Blesie (catcher) and Amy Griffith (2B) provide the most power.

Gibbs, meanwhile, finds pitching and hitting all in one player _ freshman Lisa Wiley, who throws the ball 58 mph and leads the team in RBI already. She is just one of 15 freshmen on the team. Jena Protomastro (1B) is the most experienced of five seniors and one of the best players in the county, according to coaches. Her .435 average last year has gained her heavy recruiting recognition.

Boca Ciega also has primarily freshman (13), including promising pitchers Christy Broome and Caley Parker. The Pirates should dominate on offense again this season and will contest Gibbs for south-county rights. Look for East Lake to contend again despite losing five seniors. The Eagles gained Countryside move-in Jeni Dunbar (SS)and boast an athletic team of juniors and sophomores.

NEXT UP: ST. PETERSBURG, OSCEOLA, DUNEDIN, DIXIE HOLLINS, NORTHEAST

New coach Tim Comstock, a 14-year Little League veteran, has taken over at St. Petersburg, turning it around with early success. Don't count out any of the other teams. Dixie Hollins and Northeast have their entire infields returning, and Osceola's Shannon Walker, a star pitcher for the Lady Bombers club team, anchors the Warriors. Amy Sobieraj (SS) and Jennifer Bjers (2B) are key returning sophomore starters for Dunedin.

TOP PLAYERS

Janeen Sobush (C), Countryside; Leslie Allen (2B), Largo; Jena Protomastro (SS), Gibbs; Shannon Walker (P), Osceola; Jeni Dunbar (SS), East Lake; Kelly Miller (P), Seminole.

TOP FRESHMEN

It's the year of the freshman, and the freshman pitcher. those Top hurlers entering the season are: Lisa Wiley (Gibbs), Amanda Kendall (Seminole), Kelli Lightner (Clearwater), Kasey Dowd (Countryside), Christy Broome, Kaley Parker (Boca Ciega).

PRIVATE SCHOOLS

Hello and welcome to fast-pitch softball, where speed _ on the basepath and over the plate _ kills. Most private schools are getting a rude awakening to the sport after the FHSAA mandated that slow-pitch programs change to fast-pitch in order to comply with Florida law. The switch is simple: Whichever team has the best pitchers will be successful; the hitting and fielding will come. Northside Christian has three experienced (fast) pitchers, especially Christy Glass. Shorecrest has Amy Bartlett, but St. Petersburg Catholic is still inexperienced on the mound. Its star player is catcher Stacy Helinger.

Unlike the Class A and 2A schools in the Bay Conference, 3A Clearwater Central Catholic switched to fast-pitch last year in anticipation of the rule. So while the Marauders were hammered in their introduction, this season they seem to be more comfortable. Key players are junior pitcher Kim Boree and catcher Jen Harden. Caroline Blake adds both defense at centerfield and strength at the plate.

DISTRICTS

What districts? As of today, there still are no districts. The FHSAA has yet to divide them because of the number of schools switching to fast-pitch. Bogged down in basketball finals, the FHSAA said it will create the districts after the winter sports seasons have ended.

_ LIZ ROBBINS

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