No varsity blues at Admiral Farragut where underclassmen dominate

A mix of family ties and youth characterizes this year's Blue Jackets softball team, a favorite to get to state.
Admiral Farragut's Alexis Hernandez practices her throwing. (Scott Keeler, Times)
Admiral Farragut's Alexis Hernandez practices her throwing. (Scott Keeler, Times)
Published April 4, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Admiral Farragut has been on top of the Class 3A, District 5 softball standings for so long now that it seems the postseason cannot go on without the Blue Jackets hosting at least one playoff game.

The program has become a model of consistency with four straight playoff appearances, including three straight trips to the region finals, as well as a state semifinal berth in 2017.

The streak is even more impressive when you consider all the moving parts of a high school team: players graduating or transferring or missing time with injuries.

Take last season. The Blue Jackets had to deal with the loss of ace Corynn Miner, now pitching for the University of Tampa.

No matter.

Admiral Farragut still went on to win its district and was one game short of reaching the state semifinals for a second straight season.

This year, the Blue Jackets are among the favorites to win a state title. They were 10-2 heading into the week and ranked No. 3 in the latest Class 3A state poll.

And they will be contenders for years to come.

Of the 20 girls on the roster, none are seniors and only two are juniors. The rest are underclassmen or in middle school.

"Sixth-graders can be sixth-graders, and that can be a challenge," coach Linda Derk said. "But they're all here for the right reasons. It makes it fun. They're here to develop a program and represent their school and their families."

Admiral Farragut coach Linda Derk says the youth of her players can be a challenge, but their talent is unquestioned. (Scott Keeler, Times)
Admiral Farragut coach Linda Derk says the youth of her players can be a challenge, but their talent is unquestioned. (Scott Keeler, Times)

The ascension of the team has been swift — and remarkable.

Nine years ago, Derk started the varsity program from scratch. There were some lean seasons. From 2011-12, the Blue Jackets had just one win. They steadily improved to the point where they can continue a relentless pursuit of flawlessness in games that matter most.

The girls on this year's team have only known success. That is why Derk reminds them of the program's struggles during its infancy.

"I want to make sure they understand where we came from," Derk said. "Even if they might not have physically been present, that they have a working knowledge mentally that at any given time on any given day anything can happen and we weren't always on the winning side for many years but those girls that came before them really set the path for where they are today."

The current lineup, despite its youth, is experienced, thanks to years of playing on the travel ball circuit.

Alexis Hernandez, a sophomore infielder/pitcher, has played softball since elementary school. She is considered one of the veterans.

"This is really a new group of players," Hernandez said. "A lot of players weren't here last year, but I feel like the bond that we have is stronger than it was last year and we're playing a lot better as a team and getting great results."

The bond came from playing travel ball together. Most of the girls also play other sports, a necessity at small school like Admiral Farragut.

They are competitive, too.

One of the goals is too see who can hit six home runs this season. Haley Saylor, another sophomore, is leading that race with two homers.

"It's always something where we try to push each other," Saylor said.

Another bet is to see who can come up with the winning hit or catch in the state title game.

"One of the dads said he'll buy us whatever we want if we make one of those plays," Hernandez said.

There are plenty of candidates to deliver on one of those state championship moments. Alyssa Rano is hitting a team-leading .515 and Brielle Benefield has a team-low 1.46 ERA.

Rano, a sophomore, is playing with her younger sister, Codie, a sixth-grader.

All three sixth-graders on the roster have sisters or are playing or have played with the program.

"This is more of a family than a softball program," Derk said. "That was the long-term goal, to have families involved and continue to develop the program so our success doesn't stop at graduation."