For more than two decades, the Tampa Bay area has been a hot spot for fast-pitch softball, in high school and with travel teams.
Travel ball began to take shape in the Bay area nearly 20 years ago as the popularity of fast-pitch increased. Teams in the area had to travel to find opponents because most softball still was slow-pitch.
Fast-pitch gradually took over, with colleges moving to the faster game and slow-pitch becoming almost exclusively for recreation.
But with several talented travel-ball coaches in the area, there still are numerous teams around.
The competition is tough on the field and off, with teams not hindered by recruiting districts fighting to fill their rosters with the best players.
Roland Prohenza founded the Tampa Wildcats in 2001, and the team holds its own in the competitive atmosphere. The under-16 team lost most of its players from last season but has regrouped and is preparing for a strong finish.
"There are always greener pastures for the top players, and I certainly don't blame them for trying to set up the best scenario of players to provide them with the best opportunity for a college scholarship," Prohenza said. "We have four players who have been with us the past two seasons and they are great players. The others are good to better and we are still bonding. We don't keep stats on them right now, but by the end of the season, these girls will be playing tough together and will finish strong."
Mindi Almas, a sophomore who was the backup catcher for state champion Chamberlain, and Lauren Prohenza, a Tampa Catholic sophomore pitcher and third baseman, are regulars.
Almas didn't get a lot of playing time with the Chiefs as a freshman, but she is expected to move into the starting lineup this season. She is gaining experience as the starter behind the plate for the Wildcats.
Despite the many new faces, Almas thinks the team is coming together and should do well in the NSA World Series in Polk County at the end of the month.
"Our team was not so strong at the beginning of the summer season, but we are coming together now," Almas said. "Everyone with us now is here to play and willing to work hard. I really believe we will do great in the nationals later this month."
Stephanie Davies and Haley Forsythe, who will be sophomores at Northeast in the fall, are part of the pitching rotation and alternate at several infield positions.
Davies played mostly in the outfield for the Vikings after missing the beginning of last season because of knee surgery. She has recovered and hopes to help the Wildcats finish strong.
"We have had our good games and down games, but this team is coming together now, even the new players," Davies said. "I think we will do well at nationals, and I hope everyone on the team stays through high school."
Other members of the lineup include outfielders Megan Cott, Andrea Hay, Naye Black, utility player Jenna Mullins and infielders Michelle Hendricson, Chrystal Page and Laura Schiffmaker.