When Hernando's Kevin Bittinger didn't start his ace Tuesday against River Ridge, he was thinking ahead.
To districts. To regions. To the hard road to the state final.
Beginning Monday, every game could be the last for local softball teams and every match-up could be pivotal, which is why it's never too early to start the coaching chess match.
There might be few districts tougher than Class 5A-8 and few regions tougher when you add what could be Nature Coast and the Leopards (from 5A-7) for, essentially, a four-team playoff into the region final.
How good is 5A softball on the North Suncoast?
The latest state poll has Hernando (20-2) fourth, River Ridge (22-3) sixth, Nature Coast (20-3) eighth and Gulf (16-4) ninth. And that doesn't even include Fivay, which has the most overpowering pitcher in the region, and a Dunedin squad that has knocked off Gulf, Mitchell and Palm Harbor University.
"I think it's one of the hardest regions around," River Ridge coach Ernie Beck said. "It's pretty tough."
Here's how a promising 5A postseason for the North Suncoast shakes out.
Hernando is the top seed in 5A-7. But after River Ridge's 8-1 victory over it Tuesday and 7-5 victory over Mitchell two nights later, the Royal Knights, the No. 3 seed in 5A-8, are clearly the team to beat.
No one has a better 1-2-3 top of the order than River Ridge. Kenzie Maguire (.675 average, 33 extra-base hits, 44 RBIs), Madisyn Palmer (.559) and Morgan Tolle (.506, six homers, 38 RBIs) can be devastating. Ace Makenzie Goluba (a pretty good cleanup hitter as well) is 19-3 with a 0.32 ERA. The Knights have shown some vulnerability in the field but seem to be heating back up at the plate.
It's safe to say the Leopards weren't at their best against River Ridge this week. But this is still a team that boasts Courtney Riddle (20-1, .543 batting average) and a lineup charged by a trio of .500-plus hitters. It includes leadoff hitter Megan Lane, who is batting .595 with 52 steals (second in the country, according to MaxPreps).
And there's this: Hernando beat River Ridge 2-1 on March 22. So a rubber match in regions would be quite interesting.
But teams such as Nature Coast (No. 2 in 5A-7), Dunedin (No. 1 in 5A-8) and Fivay (No. 5 in 5A-8) probably have other thoughts.
Nature Coast's only losses are to No. 4 Hernando, No. 5 Belleview and Citrus, which received poll votes but also was beaten 1-0 by the Sharks.
Nature Coast is extremely young but certainly able to beat anyone in the region. And remember, coach Ernie Chatman knows a little something about playoff softball, having taken both Hernando and Hernando Christian to two state semifinals.
Look out for Dunedin, which is riding a six-game win streak and has victories over Mitchell, PHU, Gulf and Fivay (but is 0-2 against River Ridge).
Most interesting game
Barring any upsets in the first round, Gulf, the No. 2 seed in 5A-8, might have to play River Ridge in a semifinal. That is an unlucky draw because the Bucs could make a claim for being the best team in the district.
But they do have a 3-2 victory over the Royal Knights to their credit. That snapped a 10-game losing streak against River Ridge dating to 2007.
If they can survive the district, the Bucs can make a run in the region.
Fivay is 13-10 and 4-4 in the district (but were 9-4 at one point) and have the most overpowering pitcher in the region in Jill McElderry (246 strikeouts, ranking her fifth nationally and second in Florida, according to MaxPreps). McElderry also was the first pitcher to beat River Ridge this season, a 1-0 win.
But the Falcons are averaging four errors in the past seven games - and that includes an errorless victory over Ridgewood their last time out.
Zephyrhills is 12-4 against any team not named Mitchell, River Ridge, Hernando or Nature Coast. They outscored the Bulldogs 61-13 in six games. However, it takes only one crazy pitching performance to make a big upset.
Madison Morlan, Gulf: The winning pitcher when the Bucs beat River Ridge will have to do it again in the 5A-8 semifinals.
Bailea Robinson, Fivay: Has eight RBIs in her past five games, and a few more could be enough to get the Falcons to the playoffs.
Shannon Saile, Land O'Lakes: Shut out Fivay and had 10 strikeouts in two games, so the Gators are no gimme in the first round of 5A-8.
Anessa Holes, River Ridge: The sophomore has three home runs in the past five games, including a grand slam, and as the No.5 hitter sees a set table in most at-bats.
Abbey Primavera, Nature Coast: Only a freshman but 10-3 in the circle - including two wins over Citrus and a save against Hernando.
Tana McDaniel, Hernando: No. 3 hitter has an RBI in each of her past five games and 16 in her past 13. Megan Lane will be out there begging to be plated.
Cassidee McCullough, Zephyrhills: One of five Bulldogs with at least five doubles, but her work on the mound will determine No. 3-seeded Zephyrhills' upset hopes in 5A-7.
The other districts
7A-8, at Gaither: Wiregrass Ranch would need to beat Sickles and Gaither to reach the final. The Bulls have beaten both over the past three weeks (after losing to both in their first meetings).
6A-10, at Mitchell: The Mustangs are 2-2 over their past four games but are the class of the district thanks to a lineup that has five .400 hitters. Springstead has been playing better, but the Mustangs outscored the Eagles 15-1 in two wins.
4A-6, at The Villages: Hudson, with freshman and leading hitter and pitcher Heather Shagoury, only needs to beat The Villages in the semifinals to make the region playoffs for the first time since 1998. But the first two tries were 11-2 and 6-2 losses.
3A-7, at Fest Field: Bishop McLaughlin has given up 10 or more runs in every game but one this season, a streak unlikely to end.
2A-8, at Canterbury: Sharing a district with Canterbury - two state titles in three seasons - is no fun.
2A-7, at West Tampa Little League: Academy at the Lakes is already assured of a region playoff game in this two-team district. The only question remaining is: Will it be at home?
John C. Cotey can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.
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7A-8, at Gaither
Wednesday: No. 4 Wiregrass Ranch vs. No. 5 Sickles, 7
Thursday: No. 2 Steinbrenner vs. No. 3 Freedom, 5; No. 1 Gaither vs. Wiregrass-Sickles winner, 7
Saturday: Final, 1
6A-10, at Mitchell
Tuesday: No. 5 Largo at No. 4 Dixie Hollins, 4
Wednesday: No. 2 Springstead vs. No. 3 Osceola, 5; No. 1 Mitchell vs. Largo-Dixie Hollins winner, 7
Thursday: Final, 7
5A-8, at River Ridge
Monday: No. 2 Gulf vs. No. 7 Sunlake, 5; No. 1 Dunedin vs. No. 8 Anclote, 7
Tuesday: No. 5 Fivay vs. No. 4 Land O'Lakes, 5; No. 3 River Ridge vs. No. 6 Tarpon Springs, 7
Wednesday: Dunedin-Anclote winner vs. Fivay-Land O'Lakes winner, 5; River Ridge-Tarpon Springs winner vs. Gulf-Sunlake winner, 7
Thursday: Final, 7
5A-7, at Hernando
Tuesday: No. 4 Pasco vs. No. 5 Central, 3:30; No. 6 Weeki Wachee vs. No. 3 Zephyrhills, 5:45; No. 7 Wesley Chapel vs. No. 2 Nature Coast, 8
Wednesday: Weeki Wachee-Zephyrhills winner vs. Wesley Chapel-Nature Coast winner, 6; No. 1 Hernando vs. Pasco-Central winner, 8
Thursday: Final, 7:30
4A-6, at the Villages
Monday: No. 4 Ocala Trinity Catholic vs. No. 5 Ridgewood, 6
Tuesday: No. 1 South Sumter vs. Trinity Catholic-Ridgewood winner, 5; No. 2 The Villages vs. No. 3 Hudson, 7
Thursday: Final, 7
3A-7, at Fest Field
Monday: No. 4 Brooks DeBartolo vs. No. 5 Bishop McLaughlin, 4:30
Tuesday: No. 1 Carrollwood Day vs. Brooks DeBartolo-Bishop McLaughlin winner, 2; No. 2 Seffner Christian vs. No. 3 Tampa Prep, 4:30
Thursday: Final, 5
2A-8, at Canterbury
Monday: No. 4 Hernando Christian vs. No. 5 Keswick Christian, 6
Tuesday: No. 2 Bayshore Christian vs. No. 3 Lakeside Christian, 5:30; No. 1 Canterbury vs. Hernando Christian -Keswick Christian winner, 7
Thursday: Final, 6
2A-7, at West Tampa LL
Thursday: No. 1 Cambridge Christian vs. No. 2 Academy at the Lakes, 4