It is softball’s timeless truism. Dominant pitching wins. After all, an honest-to-goodness ace can make even a small lead seem insurmountable. Academy at the Lakes’ Lexi Kilfoyl and Land O’ Lakes’ Callie Turner are the best in the area. The seniors, who are close friends, were selected last month to the 2019 USA Softball Junior Women’s National Training Team. They also led their teams to state championship game appearances last season. Their return on the mound is a big reason the Wildcats and Gators hold the top spots in our first power rankings of the season.
1. Academy at the Lakes (1-0)
Up next: Tuesday at Hernando Christian
Outlook: The Wildcats, the defending Class 2A state champions, can beat anyone regardless of classification. That has a lot to do with pitching. Alabama signee Lexi Kilfoyl, who was the Florida Dairy Farmers and Gatorade state player of the year last season, returns for her senior season. She got off to a stellar start in the opener, throwing a complete-game no-hitter to beat defending Class 3A champion Admiral Farragut 3-0. Kilfoyl struck out 15 of the 23 batters she faced. On offense, she had two hits, including a home run. But it is not just about Kilfoyl. Academy at the Lakes returns every starter, including three infielders who have already committed to colleges — Brooke Blankenship (FSU), Devyne Davis (USF) and Jessica Mott (Holy Cross). The schedule is light at the beginning of the season with the Wildcats playing just their second game against Hernando Christian on Tuesday.
2. Land O’ Lakes (3-0)
Up next: Wednesday at Sunlake; Friday vs. Palm Harbor University
Outlook: The defending Class 6A finalist has a nice mix of young stars and veteran leaders with someone different players delivering in the clutch for the Gators in wins against Wiregrass Ranch (4-0), Braden River (3-1) and Sarasota. Callie Turner, a Tennessee signee, threw a complete-game no-hitter with 12 strikeouts against the Bulls. Nehanda Lewis, a freshman infielder who committed to FSU as an eighth-grader last season, had two hits, including a three-run double in the seventh inning that turned out to be the winner against the Pirates. Shelby Westbrook, a versatile senior who has already signed with Ball State, picked up a win against the Sailors in her first start of the season on the mound. She did not allow an earned run in five innings of work. The challenging schedule continues this week with games against Sunlake and Palm Harbor University.
3. Sunlake (2-0)
Up next: Tuesday vs. Northeast; Wednesday vs. Land O’ Lakes; Friday vs. Marianna (at Panama City); Friday vs. Pensacola Escambia (at Panama City); Saturday vs. Crestview (at Panama City); Saturday vs. Arnold (at Panama City)
Outlook: The Seahawks graduated four starters from last year’s team that made the Class 7A region quarterfinals. Besides the 14 returners, Sunlake also got a boost with the addition of Alexis Duff, a pitcher and first baseman who moved to Iowa after her freshman season before returning as a senior. The loaded lineup produced impressive results the opening week with wins against Dixie Hollins (11-1) and Mitchell (7-0). Jenna Lord put up big numbers on offense, hitting .500 (4-for-8) with a combined two homers and five RBIs. And Paige Maseda, a Flagler signee, had a two-run triple against the Rebels. Alyssa Cordoba and Morgan Boudreau are handling the bulk of the pitching load. They allowed a combined three runs in the two wins. This is a busy week for the Seahawks with the biggest game against neighboring rival Land O’Lakes. Last year, the Gators handed Sunlake its only loss of the regular season. This weekend, the Seahawks travel to Panama City to play four teams from the Panhandle in the Florida-USA tournament.
4. East Lake (1-0)
Up next: Monday at Bartow; Wednesday vs. Central; Thursday at Pinellas Park; Friday vs. Seminole
Outlook: The Eagles have plenty of returners from last year’s team that won conference and district titles, and finished with one of the best records (23-4) in school history. As a bonus, FSU commit Katie Bright, a sophomore catcher, transferred in from Mitchell. In the opener, the Eagles routed rival Palm Harbor University 9-1 in their annual Strike Out Cancer game. Kansas Crean was 3-for-3 with two home runs and six RBIs. Tori Brennan, the reigning Tampa Bay Times’ Pinellas County pitcher of the year, allowed six hits and recorded nine strikeouts. She also was 2-for-3 at the plate. Others who will be contributors include outfielders Caroline Jacquay and Brooke Roberts and infielder Nikki Steiniger. East Lake has a busy week with four games, the biggest being a road trip against perennial powerhouse Bartow on Monday.
5. Alonso (2-1)
Up next: Tuesday at Leto; Thursday vs. King
Outlook: This was supposed to be somewhat of a rebuilding year for the Ravens, who graduated five starters, including Tampa Bay Times’ Hillsborough County Pitcher of the Year Jodi Handler (now at Georgia Southern). But those losses hardly spelled doom judging by the results in the first week of the regular season. Alonso went 2-1, beating Chamberlain (7-0) and Newsome (8-6) and losing to Robinson (6-5). Kristin Kopp, a State College of Florida signee, has taken over the bulk of the pitching duties. She finished the week with a 1.11 ERA and nine strikeouts. Alexis Buchman, a USF signee who transferred from Steinbrenner, is a key addition. Others who have played well include Samantha Chaplow (3-for-3 with an inside-the-park homer against the Wolves), Stephanie Brennan (two homers last week) and Scarlett Montalvo (a diving catch for the final out against Newsome).
On the cusp
6. Newsome (2-1)
Up next: Tuesday vs. Durant; Thursday at East Bay
Outlook: The Wolves have perhaps the area’s most star-studded lineup with eight players who have either committed or signed with Division I-A programs. There also are some talented freshmen on the roster battling for playing time. The quality depth has allowed Newsome to fill voids when there are injuries. Jada Smallwood, a junior who has committed to Maryland, is out with a pulled muscle in her rib cage. The Wolves started the week with convincing wins over Robinson (8-3) and Brandon (16-0) before falling to Alonso in a key district contest. The offense had some big-time performances in those three games from McKayla Timmons (.667 average, five RBIs), Bailee Leistl (.600 average) and Jadeyn Ruszkowski (.556, eight RBIs).
7. Robinson (1-1)
Up next: Tuesday at Sickles; Thursday vs. Plant
Outlook: The Knights, who have made five straight playoff appearances and had consecutive 20-win seasons, are no longer flying under the radar. This is a young team with seven freshmen and four sophomores. Because of that, Robinson will count on seniors Ashlyn Brushwood, Alex Kirkner and Alexis Smith, all captains, to provide leadership. Last week, the Knights split their two games, losing to Newsome and beating Alonso. Lindsey Chadwick, one of the stars in the freshman class, hit .800 (4-for-5) in the two games.
8. River Ridge (1-0)
Up next: Wednesday vs. Wiregrass Ranch; Thursday at Fivay; Friday vs. Bishop McLaughlin
Outlook: In their only game last week, the Royal Knights beat Palm Harbor University 6-2. Isabella Conrad was 2-for-2 with two RBIs, and Jessica Bryson and Madisen Vozdecky were each 2-for-3. That was more than enough offense for Melanie Rogers, a Warner signee who returns as the team’s ace. Rogers threw a five-hitter and finished with 10 strikeouts against the Hurricanes. River Ridge, the defending Class 6A, District 7 champion, has a veteran lineup. The biggest loss in the offseason was Hailey Smith, who transferred back to Hudson.
10. Plant City (2-0)
Up next: Tuesday vs. Jefferson; Thursday at Wharton; Friday vs. The First Academy
Outlook: Gary Blessin, an assistant the past three years, took over as head coach in the offseason. He inherited a solid squad, led by his daughter, Ashley, the three-time Tampa Bay Times’ Hillsborough County Pitcher of the Year who has already signed with Marshall. Ashley got the season off to a spectacular start, throwing a no-hitter with 15 strikeouts in a 7-0 win over Brandon and a perfect game in a 15-0 win over Spoto that lasted three innings. Abbie DeWeese provided the power, hitting a grand slam in the season opener against the Eagles.
On the cusp
11. Mitchell (2-1)
Up next: Tuesday vs. Dixie Hollins; Thursday vs. Osceola
Outlook: The Mustangs, who have won two straight Class 7A, District 10 titles, have some catching up to do to keep that streak intact after losing to rival Sunlake last week. Mitchell’s biggest loss in the offseason was Ashley Autuori, who was the workhorse of the staff. This season, Ashley Altman, Sydney Fowler and Rachel Geiger are sharing the workload. The loss to the Seahawks hurt, but the Mustangs will still be in contention. They beat Zephyrhills 10-0 and Hudson 6-1 last week. The big bats early on have been Alandra Coure (.667) and Kaylee Barber (.500).
12. Chamberlain (1-1)
Up next: Tuesday at Plant; Thursday vs. Freedom
Outlook: The Chiefs, who compete annually for state titles, had the tough task of replacing their top two pitchers who graduated. Lani Trent, a Georgia Gwinnett College signee, moves from first base to the mound to take over as the ace. Trent will team with catcher Haylie Corcho to form a solid battery. Corcho also plays a mean trumpet in the school’s band. After losing the opener to Alonso, the Chiefs rebounded to beat Strawberry Crest 12-0. Trent threw two-hit shutout with six strikeouts.
13. Palm Harbor University (0-2)
Up next: Monday at Canterbury; Thursday at Countryside; Friday at Land O’Lakes
Outlook: The Hurricanes return their top 12 players from last year, including every starter. But they have to make some adjustments on the mound with Savanna Bennett coming back after having Tommy John surgery in the offseason. Bennett has been a designated hitter and hit a solo homer in the Hurricanes’ season-opening loss to East Lake. PHU’s offense, led by Faith Allen, Mia Buffano, Jalynn Ford and Kimberly Singer, will put up big numbers once it gets on track. The schedule, though, doesn’t get any easier with games Monday against Canterbury and Friday against Land O’Lakes.
14. Springstead (2-0)
Up next: Tuesday vs. Weeki Wachee; Thursday at Citrus
Outlook: Graduation took its toll with the Eagles losing catcher Paige Pfent and pitcher Kayla Cruz. But there is still enough talent left for Springstead to make another deep playoff run. Mariah Galhouse has taken over as the ace. Last week, the senior did not allow a run and gave up just three hits in wins over Central (18-0) and Bishop McLaughlin (7-0). The offense provided plenty of support. Emily Kolwicz hit .857 and Jenna Ryan had six RBIs in the two games last week,
15. Hernando (1-0)
Up next: Tuesday vs. Hudson
Outlook: The defending 5A region finalist Leopards opened the season with a 20-0 rout over Central. Madyson Lamp, the team’s top hitter, was 3-for-3 with a homer and four RBIs. Ali Shenefield, a Rollins signee, threw a perfect game, striking out eight of the nine batters she faced in a game that lasted three innings because of the mercy rule. The schedule is light to start the season. Tuesday’s game against Hudson is Hernando’s only one this week.
On the bubble: Canterbury (2-0), Durant (2-0), Freedom (2-0), Calvary Christian (2-0), Bloomingdale (1-0), Sickles (2-0), Steinbrenner (1-0), Tarpon Springs (2-0), Osceola (2-0), Academy of the Holy Names (2-0), Tampa Catholic (2-0), Admiral Farragut (0-2).