Talent seems to be on the rise among the three Hernando County high school softball teams.
At Hernando, fourth-year coach Brent Gaustad has a career mark of 62-8, claiming two district championships in three years. The Leopards won their second district title last season en route to an impressive 20-2 mark.
Although some key players have graduated, Gaustad still has a solid nucleus to work with.
"We were very young last year," Gaustad said. "We're just young this year, I guess you could say."
The Leopards have two seniors _ fourth-year starter and all-conference second baseman Kolleen Colburn, and first baseman Melanie Ramsey.
Colburn was moved into the pitching rotation for the first time this season. Angela Creel, a junior who pitched two seasons on junior varsity, also is in the rotation. A third starter _ all-conference junior shortstop Lisa Picciano _ is expected to join the staff soon.
"I stay with two pitchers usually, but the pitching situation is an unknown for us right now," Gaustad explained. "I have to see who's going to be the game player and who's not."
Two other position players also made all-conference last season _ catcher Casey Bates and third baseman Carrie Bishop. Both are juniors.
Jackie Springstead, a junior leftfielder, and Punkin Maner, a sophomore outfielder/first baseman, complete the list of returning starters.
"Our goal is to get solid pitching as soon as possible and continue the offense and defense we've been playing for the last three years," Gaustad said.
Hernando's home and season opener against Springstead was rained out last Thursday. The Leopards will try again Friday at Gulf in New Port Richey.
Central posted a doleful 1-17 record last season, but according to coach Vera Yoder, the Bears have shown marked improvement.
Central has one senior with playing experience, outfielder Teresa Burke, and four returning starters _ junior infielder/pitcher Kristin McGrath, junior first baseman Jessica Santana, junior outfielder Tammi Bowman and sophomore third baseman Libby Burr.
The ace of the pitching staff is Marisa Matson, a sophomore in her rookie season. Alesa Meadors, a freshman, also will pitch.
"The girls are really working together as a unit, especially for being so early in the season," Yoder said. "It looks really promising _ at least for us to be competitive."
Although the Bears opened the season with a 14-4 loss Feb. 25 at River Ridge, Yoder still saw some positives.
"The score didn't really say much because so many good things happened on the field in terms of improvement," she said. "I know we still have a lot of improvement to make, but from where we were last year and where we are this year, we've come a long way. It's about time things started happening our way."
Central also will field a junior varsity team for the first time.
At Springstead, first-year coach John Bifulco will try to carry his soccer success to the softball field.
Bifulco has a four-year record of 47-12-6 in girls soccer, including a 32-3-4 mark and a district title the last two seasons.
He coached baseball for several years in his home state of New York, but never coached softball until filling in for one game at Springstead last season. The Eagles, 5-13 last season, gained a rare win in that contest, giving Bifulco a perfect career mark of 1-0 heading into his first full season.
He has three returning starters to build around _ junior centerfielder Inez Carrero, senior first baseman Jessica Heptig and junior shortstop Jessica Lujick.
Two freshmen _ Molly Riney and Laura Rosselli _ make up the pitching rotation for a young Springstead team that has six freshmen on the varsity roster.
"The softball team has had four different coaches in the last four years," Bifulco said. "I told the players, especially the freshmen, that I'm going to make a commitment to them and hopefully see them through for the next four years."
The Eagles have lost their first two games by a combined score of 38-6.
"I'm looking at softball like I looked at the soccer program four years ago," Bifulco said. "I will teach them how to play the game. My main concern is to get as competitive as possible, as early as possible. If it takes a whole season to learn how to play the game right, then so be it. That's what they have next year for."
Springstead is scheduled to play today at Crystal River.