NEW PORT RICHEY — When Hernando’s Kevin Bittinger didn’t start his ace Tuesday against River Ridge, he was thinking ahead.
To districts. To regionals. To the hard road to the state finals.
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 may be few districts tougher than Class 5A-8, and few regions tougher when you add what is expected to 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 lists 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 this season.
“I think it’s one of the hardest regions around,” said River Ridge coach Ernie Beck. “It’s pretty tough.”
Here’s a look at how a promising 5A postseason for the North Suncoast shakes out:
Hernando may be seeded highest, but after River Ridge’s 8-1 victory over the Leopards last week, and 7-5 victory two nights later over Mitchell, the Royal Knights are clearly the team to beat.
No one has a better 1-2-3 top of the order than River Ridge. Kenzie Maguire (.675 batting average, 33 extra-base hits, 44 RBIs), Madisyn Palmer (.559) and Morgan Tolle (.506, six HRs, 38 RBIs) can be devastating, and 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 not unreasonable to think we could see River Ridge-Hernando, Part III.
It’s safe to say the Leopards weren’t at their best against River Ridge, but this is still a team that boasts pitcher Courtney Riddle (20-1, .543 BA) and a lineup charged by a trio of .500-plus hitters, including leadoff hitter Megan Lane, who is batting .595 with 52 steals, second in the country, according to MaxPreps.
And there’s this: Hernando has beaten River Ridge 2-1 already, so a rubber match in regionals would be quite interesting.
But teams like Nature Coast, Dunedin and Fivay probably have other thoughts.
Nature Coast’s only losses are to No. 4 Hernando, No. 5 Belleview and Citrus, which received poll votes but was also beaten 1-0 by the Sharks. They’re extremely young, but certainly able to beat anyone in the region. And remember, coach Ernie Chatman knows a little something about playoff softball, having already taken Hernando and Hernando Christian to a pair of final fours each.
Look out for No. 1 seed 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 may have to play River Ridge in a 5A-8 semifinal, which is an unlucky draw because the Bucs could make a claim for being the best in 5A-8.
But they do have a 3-2 victory over the Royal Knights to their credit, snapping a 10-game losing streak against River Ridge dating back 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), but the Falcons are averaging four errors a game in their past seven — and that includes an errorless victory over Ridgewood last time out. McElderry was also the first pitcher to beat River Ridge this season, a 1-0 win.
Zephyrhills is 12-4 against any team not named Mitchell, River Ridge, Hernando or Nature Coast, which outscored the Bulldogs 61-13 in six games. It only takes 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.
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: She shut out Fivay this season and struck out 10 in two games, so the Gators are no gimme in the first round.
Anessa Holes, River Ridge: The sophomore has three homers 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.
McDaniel, Hernando: Leopards’ No. 3 hitter has an RBI in each of her past five games, and 16 in her past 13. 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 Zephyrhills’ upset hopes.
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 in the past three weeks (after losing to both in their first meetings).
6A-10 at Mitchell: The Mustangs are 2-2 in 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, led by freshman and leading hitter and pitcher Heather Shagoury, only needs to beat the Villages in their semifinal matchup 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 that’s unlikely to end.
2A-8 at Canterbury: Sharing a district with state power 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 berth in this two-team district. The only question remaining is will it be at home?
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.
Class 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
Class 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
Class 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
Class 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-Zephyrhills winner vs. Wesley Chapel-NCT winner, 6; No. 1 Hernando vs. Pasco-Central, 8
Thursday: Final, 7:30
Class 4A-6 at the Villages
Monday: No. 4 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
Class 3A-7 at Fest Field
Monday: No. 4 Brooks DeBartolo vs. No. 5 Bishop McLaughlin, 4:30
Tuesday: No. 1 Carrollwood Day vs. BD-Bishop winner, 2; No. 2 Seffner Christian vs. No. 3 Tampa Prep, 4:30
Thursday: Final, 5
Class 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. HCA-Keswick winner, 7
Thursday: Final, 6
Class 2A-7 at West Tampa LL
Thursday: No. 1 Cambridge Christian vs. No. 2 Academy at the Lakes, 4