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DEEP, STRONG FIELDS

Standing in the Boneyard watching Pasco take infield practice makes it hard to believe softball season begins this week.

Last season ended with the Pirates' run to the Class 4A state final and the anticipation of an even stronger season this year.

Arguably one of the toughest classifications in the state, 4A is where Pasco will contend with Zephyrhills, Gulf and Springstead for two postseason berths. Those teams will have to contend with the likes of defending state champ Lake Wales and Groveland South Lake pitcher Shaina Dent. ¦ Mitchell is the defending Sunshine Athletic Conference champ but will have to fight and claw just to get out of Class 6A, District 7, where teams such as Gaither and Countryside seem to dominate. Land O'Lakes and River Ridge will go at it in 5A-7 while Academy at the Lakes will make a bid for its first postseason berth in A-11.

What does it all mean? This should be one heck of a season for North Suncoast softball.

Times' top 10

1. Pasco: The Pirates hope to overcome the loss of three starters by riding the arm of Colena Lazar and the bat of Lucy Schneider in their bid to return to the state championship.

2. Zephyrhills: The Bulldogs return everyone, including startersJessica Davis at shortstop and Ashley Anderton at first base.

3. Land O'Lakes: The Gators will lean on stars such as Alexis Aubuchon, Lauren Smith and Michelle Bradley to fight for the 5A-7 crown.

4. Mitchell: The Mustangs have Courtney Stager and Tenisha Dixon but will have to battle the likes of Gaither, Countryside and Sickles to advance to the playoffs.

5. Gulf: The Bucs had to replace their infield and two-thirds of their outfield but should be contenders with players such as Jessica Santoli, Brittany Mayhill, Devin Fellman and Amy Bushong.

6. River Ridge: The Royal Knights lost five players, including ace Nicole Denney, but should be solid with Michelle McKonly.

7. Springstead: The Eagles will rise or fall depending on the arm of ace Becky Powell.

8. Ridgewood: Rams coach Greg Bollinger reclaims the reins of the varsity with a promising group of players.

9. Hernando: The Leopards lost five seniors and are unproven after the loss of Timesback-to-back player of the year Katelyn Vanderham.

10. Nature Coast: The Sharks have improved tremendously as noted by coaches watching summer travel ball.

Sleeper: Academy at the Lakes. Anchored by freshman pitcher Amber Hay, the Wildcats should be contenders in their first season of district play.

Coach speak

"You couldn't ask for a worse start to the season."

Gulf coach Rick Hohenthaner on opening on the road at Zephyrhills.

MVP watch

C Courtney Stager,Sr.

Florida State signee will anchor the Mitchell offense.

C Devin Fellman, Sr.

Gulf star hit over .500 and will sign with St. Petersburg College.

IN FLucy Schneider, Jr.

Pasco's star hit .484 with six home runs and 25 RBIs.

INF Michelle McKonly, Sr.

River Ridge's slugger batted .522 last season with 28 RBIs.

INF Jessica Davis, Sr.

Bulldog orally committed to Illinois after batting .453 with seven home runs and 25 RBIs.

INF Danielle Fennimore, Sr.

Hudson's anchor in the infield.

OF Alexis Aubuchon, Sr.

Land O'Lakes star brings a solid glove to the field.

OF Tenisha Dixon, Sr.

Mitchell star centerfielder and UCF signee.

OF Brittany Mayhill

Led Pasco County with 50 steals last season for Gulf.

P Colena Lazar, Jr.

Pasco ace named to Class 4A all-state first team after finishing 18-4 with 185 strikeouts and 1.24 ERA.

P Michelle Bradley, Jr.

Land O'Lakes pitcher went 10-5 with a 3.05 ERA.

P Amber Hay, Fr.

Academy at the Lakes ace earned second-team all-state honors with a 12-2 record, 148 strikeouts and 1.68 ERA.

DH Ashley Anderton, Sr.

Zephyrhills slugger earned second-team all-state honors last season after batting .453 with seven home runs and 29 RBIs.

The districts

Class 6A, District 7: Alonso, Countryside, Gaither, Mitchell, St. Petersburg, Sickles

Class 5A, District 7: Central, Land O'Lakes, Ridgewood, River Ridge, Wesley Chapel

Class 4A, District 8: Gulf, Hernando, Hudson, Nature Coast, Pasco, Springstead, Sunlake, Wiregrass Ranch, Zephyrhills

Class 2A, District 9: Bishop McLaughlin, Calvary Chr., Indian Rocks Chr., Tampa Prep

Class A, District 6: Cedar Key, Hernando Chr., Ocala Meadowbrook, Ocala St. John Lutheran, Orlando West Oaks

Class A, District 11: Academy at the Lakes, Canterbury, Citrus Park Chr., Pasco Chr., Lakeside Chr., Oldsmar Chr.

FAST FACTS

For the fans

Regular season: Practice began Jan. 7, and the first games allowed are today. A team may not play more than 25 games, including tournaments. The regular season ends April 12.

Playoffs: District tournaments are April 14-18. The 16 winners and 16 runnersup from each classification advance to the region tournaments, which begin April 22. The final four teams from the six classifications advance to the state tournament May 5-10 in Plant City.

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