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Growing pains soothed for Admiral Farragut softball

The adjustment to a new coach behind them, the Blue Jackets appear back in state championship form.

ST. PETERSBURG — After winning the school’s first state softball title last season, there seemed to be little standing in the way of Admiral Farragut Academy winning another.

The Blue Jackets returned their entire roster, mostly underclassmen.

Everything was in place — except a coach.

Linda Derk, who led the softball program from its infancy a decade ago, stepped down as coach and athletic director in December to pursue other opportunities. Three days after that decision became official, the Blue Jackets hired Bill Hoopes.

Hoopes had no intention of coaching high school softball again. He did it last season at Wesley Chapel and struggled after losing several key players who were re-zoned for nearby Cypress Creek, the newest high school in Pasco County.

But the Admiral Farragut job intrigued Hoopes, who spent 16 years in the Navy (2000-15) rising to Chief Petty officer.

So he took on another challenge.

Two months into the season, Hoopes had to wonder what he got himself into — again.

The Blue Jackets were 7-9. The pitching was inconsistent. The hitting sporadic.

But the team has righted the ship, winning seven of its final eight games to finish the regular season with a 14-10 record.

Part of that poor record early on had to do with the level of competition. Hoopes scheduled games against some of the best teams in the state, many in higher classifications, so Admiral Farragut would be challenged before the postseason started.

There also was an adjustment period between the players and their new coach.

“It’s still the same group of girls from last year and the mind-set of us all is still the same,” junior utility player Alexis Hernandez said. “It’s different for obvious reasons. We have a new coach, and he has put us up against tougher teams and moved us into different positions that we haven’t played before. He has told us several times throughout this season to stay humble, and that has stuck with me because what we did last year doesn’t mean anything now.”

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Hoopes, who coached travel ball with the Firecrackers’ Florida-based 16-under team the past four years, said the setbacks he had in his high school debut a year ago helped him grow in his new gig.

“Last year certainly taught me some patience and that high school ball is a different animal,” Hoopes said. “I’ve learned how to navigate that world. Initially, there was a lot of self-made pressure. The kids and the team were all the same. The only difference was me.”

At first, Hoopes harped on the importance of winning games that mattered. He was particularly hard in practice the days before a game against Class 3A, District 5 rival Bradenton St. Stephen’s.

The Blue Jackets lost 8-3.

Before the rematch, Hoopes had his players put away the gloves and bats at practice. Instead, they played kickball with the football team.

Admiral Farragut won the rematch 15-0.

“We just had fun,” he said. “As the season went on, we learned more about each other and it became more about the next game in front of us.”

After a slow start, the Blue Jackets now appear back on track to defend their state title. They were the No. 1 seed in this week’s district tournament and have already clinched a region berth.

“We have decided on making our own way, our own memories,” Hoopes said. “We have been preparing all year for what’s coming and defending the title.

“Win or lose, I’ve learned these kids are all in it for each other. Most have been playing together since they were 10. They love each other. They love their school. It’s been fun getting to know them.”

Contact Bob Putnam at Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.