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Tampa Bay Times’ all-Tampa Bay softball

Get to know our top players and pitchers of a highly successful overall season for Tampa Bay teams.
Academy at the Lakes senior Lexi Kilfoyl throws a no-hitter, striking out 10, hitting a towering homer and helping AATL defeat Mount Dora Christian 11-0 to win the Class 2A state title. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)
Published Jun. 14

Our staff picks for the top players in Pasco, Hernando, Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties:

North Suncoast Player of the Year: Lexi Kilfoyl, Sr., Academy at the Lakes

Why we picked her: The area’s premier power pitcher cemented her status as perhaps the greatest softball player ever from the area after leading the Wildcats to their second straight Class 2A state title and becoming the first local to twice be named the Gatorade state player of the year. The Alabama signee went 12-1 this season with a 0.48 ERA and 134 strikeouts in 72 ⅔ innings. She was just as strong at the plate, hitting .562 with 12 homers and 37 RBIs. In the 2A title game, Kilfoyl threw a six-inning no-hitter and finished with 10 strikeouts. She also had the winning hit, a solo home run in the first inning of the Wildcats’ 11-0 victory over Mount Dora Christian. Kilfoyl finished her career on a 37 ⅔-inning scoreless streak.

Season highlight: Kilfoyl was dominant throughout the year, but another state title was not a given. Academy at the Lakes fought through numerous injuries, including a shoulder strain that sidelined Kilfoyl from pitching for more than a month. “Being state champs last year was a big expectation we had to live up to, and we fought our hardest (to repeat) and that showed in the score,” she said.

Did you know? Kilfoyl almost gave the sport up in Little League. Her father convinced her to stick with it after agreeing to become her coach.

What’s next? Kilfoyl is spending the summer playing for the USA Softball Junior Women’s National Team. After that, she will be joining the Crimson Tide to start her college career.

RELATED: Spotlight always finds Academy at the Lakes ace Lexi Kilfoyl

Hernando senior Ali Shenefield brought all of her determination to the Class 5A semifinals against Coral Springs Charter. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)

North Suncoast Pitcher of the Year: Ali Shenefield, Sr., Hernando

Why we picked her: More than anything else, Shenefield had a knack for getting opposing batters to whiff. She amassed a whopping 370 strikeouts this season, the second-highest single-season total of any pitcher in the state since MaxPreps started compiling softball statistics in 2005. She finished just nine strikeouts behind Plant City ace (and travel ball teammate) Ashley Blessin. What makes the feat all the more remarkable is Shenefield learned the mechanics of throwing on her own. Her strikeout total this season ranks among the top 10 nationally. She also holds the single-season school record for shutouts (18) and career records for strikeouts (935), wins (78) and shutouts (45).

Season highlight: The most memorable out Shenefield recorded this season did not come via a strikeout. Instead, it was a popup that sealed the Leopards’ 1-0 victory over Alachua Santa Fe in the Class 5A region final. That win clinched Hernando’s first trip to the state semifinals since 2001.

Did you know? Shenefield has not had a haircut since the third grade. She spends about 5-10 minutes braiding her long locks before every game. Part of the reason she continues to let her hair grow is because of a bad experience as a youngster. Her bangs were uneven and her hair had to be cut even shorter to fix the problem. She has no plans of cutting it again anytime soon.

What’s next? Shenefield will spend the summer playing travel ball before heading off to Rollins for her freshman year of college.

RELATED: Hernando’s Ali Shenefield takes a cerebral approach to pitching

Plant City pitcher Ashley Blessin struck out and shut out players and teams at an amazing rate in the 2019 season. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)

Hillsborough County Player of the Year: Ashley Blessin, Sr., Plant City

Why we picked her: The reigning three-time Hillsborough County pitcher of the year won the Jack and Barbara Thompson award as the county’s player of the year after recording her best season yet. She finished with 379 strikeouts, the highest single-season total since MaxPreps started compiling softball statistics in 2005. Blessin also had the lowest ERA in the state at 0.12. Those numbers helped Plant City continue its greatest stretch in program history. The Raiders made the playoffs for the fourth straight season and advanced to the region semifinals for the third straight year. Blessin was not just dominant. She was durable, too. This season, Blessin went the distance in games that lasted 13 and 19 innings, the last coming in a semifinal loss to Sickles that ended Plant City’s season.

Season highlight: Blessin had a goal of recording 1,000 career strikeouts, a feat that few area pitchers, if any, have done since the pitching rubber moved from 40 to 43 feet in 2006. She reached that mark in the Class 8A, District 6 semifinals. Blessin finished her high school career with 1,059 strikeouts.

Did you know? Blessin’s father, Gary, was born in Chicago. She grew up a Cubs fan and has a goal of watching the team play in every Major League Baseball city with her dad. So far, Blessin has been to Chicago, St. Louis and St. Petersburg. She plans to go to Houston this summer.

What’s next? Once Blessin wraps up play in travel ball this summer, she will report to Marshall to start her college career.

RELATED: Plant City’s Ashley Blessin an unhittable powerhouse on the mound

Newsome starter Mary Beth Feldman gets ready to warm up for the Class 9A state final game in Vero Beach. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)

Hillsborough Pitcher of the Year: Mary Beth Feldman, Sr., Newsome

Why we picked her: This season, Feldman put it all together to help Newsome reach the Class 9A state championship game for the first time since the program won it all in 2015. She got better as the season went on and was nearly unhittable down the stretch. Feldman had a combined four runs scored on her in her final eight starts, including six shutouts during that stretch. She had four straight shutouts to start the postseason, a streak that ended with a 3-2 loss to Park Vista in the 9A final. Feldman finished the season with a 13-3 record and 1.24 ERA. She also had 199 strikeouts in 118.2 innings

Season highlight: The Wolves’ biggest battles came against rival Palm Harbor University. Newsome won three of the four meetings, including a 2-1 victory in the region semifinals. Feldman allowed four hits and recorded 11 strikeouts in that game.

Did you know? After going through some midseason struggles last season, Feldman said she went to a sports psychologist who helped her regain confidence. She only had one session but used what she learned the rest of her high school career.

What’s next? In the fall, Feldman will start school at Utah. She signed with the Utes in part to be with older sister Claire, who will be a redshirt junior. Claire was on Newsome’s state championship team in 2015 while Mary Beth, then an eighth-grader, watched in the stands. Claire was there for Mary Beth’s title game in May.

RELATED: Extra-inning heartbreak in state final for Newsome

East Lake's Tori Brennan has already tallied an impressive high school career and she still has another season to go. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

Pinellas Player of the Year: Tori Brennan, Jr., East Lake

Why we picked her: The reigning county pitcher of the year was even more dominant this season while playing on a veteran team that returned nearly every starter. Pitching in the biggest games, Brennan went 23-2 with a 1.06 ERA and had 153 strikeouts in 145.2 innings for the Class 8A, District 7 champion Eagles. Her ability to keep opponents off the scoreboard was a big reason the Eagles were ranked 18th overall in the state and won 26 straight games before losing in the region semifinals to eventual state finalist Lakewood Ranch.

Season highlight: The Eagles had plenty of impressive feats, winning district and conference titles. But Brennan said the biggest thrill was winning the Lady ’Canes’ Spring Invitational hosted by Palm Harbor University. East Lake knocked off 4A region finalist Calvary Christian, 9A state finalist Newsome and 9A region semifinalist PHU during the tournament. It was the second time in three seasons the Eagles had won the tournament.

Did you know? Brennan started off playing catcher in softball before switching to pitcher. In the circle, she wears a helmet with a protective face mask. Brennan was never hit by a softball — and she does not want to know the feeling. That’s why she wears it.

What’s next? Much like last season, Brennan is taking the summer off from playing softball. She will continue to take pitching lessons and work on her hitting. Once school starts, Brennan likely will resume playing in the fall to get ready for the high school season.

RELATED: Phone it in? Not this East Lake softball team

Admiral Farragut pitcher Bre Benefield fires an early pitch during a Class 3A state semifinal against University Christian. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)

Pinellas Pitcher of the Year: Bre Benefield, Jr., Admiral Farragut

Why we picked her: By winning another Class 3A state title, Benefield became part of an exclusive club of pitchers in the area, joining Palm Harbor University’s Dani Hofer (2004-05), Canterbury’s Kama Woodall (2013-14) and Academy at the Lakes’ Lexi Kilfoyl (2018-19) as the only ones to start — and win — consecutive state title games. She became a reliable ace down the stretch, winning her last seven starts. Benefield finished with a 1.71 ERA and had 154 strikeouts in 131 innings.

Season highlight: The biggest moment for Benefield was watching senior third baseman Katya Fe make the final out in the Blue Jackets’ 15-5 win over Fort Pierce John Carroll in the state final. Benefield recorded 12 strikeouts in that game, her second straight game in the state tournament with double-digit Ks.

Did you know? One of Benefield’s biggest passions, besides softball, is art. She loves to draw and paint, and uses those hobbies to relieve stress.

What’s next? During the summer and fall, Benefield will play travel ball to get ready for her senior season. She can become the first pitcher from the area to ever win three state titles.

RELATED: Admiral Farragut repeats as Class 3A champion

Admiral Farragut coach Bill Hoopes gives a hug to his starting pitcher, Bre Benefield, moments after the Blue Jackets won the Class 3A state titl. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)

Co-coaches of the Year

Admiral Farragut’s Bill Hoopes and Academy at the Lakes’ Diane Stephenson

These two both were named the Florida Dairy Farmers’ coach of the year in their respective classifications after winning state titles. Hoopes, who took over the Blue Jackets this season, helped the program rebound from early-season struggles to win a second straight Class 3A title. Stephenson played a big role in getting the Wildcats to overcome some key injuries to win their second straight 2A title. Stephenson stepped down after the season and is now at Admiral Farragut as a teacher, not as a coach.

Academy at the Lakes coach Diane Stephenson kept coaching hard right up to the last minute of an 11-0 Class 2A state final victory over Mount Dora Christian. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)

RELATED: Tampa Bay Times’ all-Pinellas County softball

First team

P Lani Trent, Sr., Chamberlain: Georgia Gwinnett College commit was solid in the circle (16-4, 1.66 ERA, 115 strikeouts) and at the plate (.463, 5 homers, 40 RBIs) for the region finalist Chiefs.

P Jordan Almasy, Jr., Wesley Chapel: UCF commit was a big reason the Wildcats made the region final, going 15-6 with a 1.49 ERA and 151 strikeouts.

P Callie Turner, Sr., Land O’Lakes: Tennessee signee went 12-5 with a 1.71 ERA and 191 strikeouts while leading the Gators to a district title.

P Kylie Coffin, Jr., Freedom: Carrollwood Day transfer had one of the state’s lowest ERAs (0.46) and went 11-1 with 64 strikeouts for the district runnerup Patriots.

C Neely Peterson, Sr., Cypress Creek: Colorado State signee had the offensive numbers (.528, 6 homers, 40 RBIs) that helped the Coyotes win their first district title.

IF Jenna Lord, So., Sunlake: One of the area’s best power hitters, Lord tied for the state lead in homers with 13 and finished in the state’s top 10 in RBIs with 46.

IF Kaia LoPreste, Sr., Riverview: After spending most of her high school career at catcher, the FSU signee moved to shortstop and hit .577 with five homers and 34 RBIs.

IF Alexa Russo, Sr., Tampa Catholic: University of Tampa signee hit .464 with five homers and led the Crusaders to their first state semifinal appearance in 22 years.

IF Alexis Smith, Sr., Robinson: Two-sport athlete won a state title in flag football and hit .459 to help the Knights reach the region final in softball for the first time.

OF Bailee Leistl, Sr., Newsome: USF signee was consistent, recording a hit in all but two games. She finished with a .495 average to go along with 29 stolen bases and 40 runs scored for the state finalist Wolves.

OF Kendra Falby, So., Sunlake: Florida commit had multiple hits in 18 games and finished with a .510 average and 37 stolen bases for the region finalist Seahawks.

OF Jessica Bryson, Sr., River Ridge: Florida Southern signee had perhaps the best season of her career, leading the Royal Knights in hitting (.579 ) and stolen bases (26).

DH Madyson Lamp, Sr., Hernando: South Georgia State signee showed a lot of pop at the plate, hitting .509 with nine home runs and 40 RBIs for the state semifinalist Leopards.

UTIL Natalie Zweig, Sr., Sickles: USF signee did a little bit of everything, going 5-1 with a 0.62 ERA and hitting .464 with 25 RBIs for the region finalist Gryphons.

RELATED: Tampa Bay Times’ all-North Suncoast softball

Second team

P Mariah Galhouse, Sr., Springstead

P Melanie Rogers, Sr., River Ridge

P Alyssa Cordoba, Jr., Sunlake

P Taylor Norwood, Sr., Palm Harbor University

C Katie Bright, So., East Lake

IF McKayla Timmons, Jr., Newsome

IF Alex Hare, Sr., Mitchell

IF Hailey Smith, Sr., Hudson

IF Nikki Steiniger, Sr., East Lake

OF Caroline Jacquay, Sr., East Lake

OF Mia Buffano, Sr., Palm Harbor University

OF Jada Smallwood, Jr., Newsome

UTIL Lexi Hernandez, Jr., Admiral Farragut

DH Jadeyn Ruszkowski, So., Newsome

RELATED: Tampa Bay Times’ all-Hillsborough County softball

Third team

P Kayla Swinson, Jr., Durant

P Jillian Long, Jr., Wharton

P Mikayla Hoschak, So., Sunlake

P Charlotte Schultheis, Jr., Calvary Christian

C Taliyah Dowdell, Jr., Hernando

IF Jocelyn Alonso, Sr., Canterbury

IF Madison Frey, Fr., Steinbrenner

IF Leah Jarnac, So., Calvary Christian

IF Kimberly Singer, Sr., Palm Harbor University

OF Hayley Eaton, Jr., Calvary Christian

OF Paige Maseda, Sr., Sunlake

OF Asia Thomas, Sr., Chamberlain

DH Krystina Hartley, So., Admiral Farragut

UTIL Maddie Droz, So., Bloomingdale

Honorable mention

Academy at the Lakes: Hannah Church, Devyne Davis, Jessica Mott; Admiral Farragut: Katya Fe; Alonso: Alexis Buchman; Anclote: Sierra Stephens; Bloomingdale: Kailey Harrigan; Boca Ciega: Alanah Rivera; Canterbury: Mackenzie Bergstrom, Madison Fine, Sarah Young; Cypress Creek: Emma Coon, Jasmine Jackson; Dunedin: Alissa Mankiewich; Durant: Samantha Hampton; East Lake: McKenna Graham, Brooke Roberts; Jefferson: Destiny DeHoyos; Freedom: Ellis Erickson; Gaither: Jocelyn Wilkes; Land O’Lakes: Shelby Westbrook; Mitchell: Ashley Altman, Kaylee Barber, Marina Rao; Osceola: Coreya Quarterman, Abby Sulte; Palm Harbor University: Savannah LePain, Makenna Utegaard, Sammy Wilson; Pinellas Park: Justice McCranie; Robinson: Lindsey Chadwick; Seminole: Annie Potter; Sickles: Robyn Herron, Kamryn Jackson, Lauren Lightbody; Steinbrenner: Mikayla Johnson; Sunlake: Alexis Duff; Tampa Catholic: Paige Lassiter; Tarpon Springs: Phoebe Howard; Wiregrass Ranch: Miranda Perez; Wharton: Hana Schwindler; Zephyrhills: April Lorton

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