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North Suncoast softball landscape looks a bit different this year

Many of last year’s power pitchers in Pasco and Hernando have moved on, and some of the top programs have new coaches this season.
Caitlin Blankenship, along with older sister Brooke, moves on from Academy at the Lakes, which won consecutive state titles, to River Ridge. [SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times]

In the fall, Phil Bell decided to pursue the softball head coach position at Sunlake High. He did so at the urging of his daughter, Maddie, who played at Mitchell (2014-17).

Bell already was familiar with softball teams in the area. He coached travel teams and knew most of the varsity coaches after serving eight years (2008-15) as Pasco County athletic director. But that institutional knowledge did not exactly pay off once Bell took over for Nelson Garcia, who retired after eight seasons citing health concerns.

In the past six months, the landscape changed dramatically. Coaches changed. Players graduated. Others transferred.

Related: High school softball rankings for Tampa Bay

Lineup cards were needed to get used to all the new faces in what has been a frenetic offseason. Still, Bell understood there would be turnover, particularly among the coaches.

“It’s a tough job, a grind,” Bell said. “There’s not many of those longtime coaches left in baseball or softball.”

Bell inherited a team that made the Class 7A region finals last season. But the makeup of that team is quite different. Four starters graduated. Jenna Lord, who led the team in home runs (13) and RBIs, moved to Alabama.

“There were a lot of changes, but you can’t worry about the past or who could have been here,” Bell said. “You have to keep moving forward, and we have a lot of talent still here.”

Lexi Kilfoyl dominated the mound for Academy at the Lakes for several seasons. Now she's in the University of Alabama lineup as a freshman. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

No Pasco County softball team went through more of a transformation than Academy at the Lakes. The two-time defending Class 2A state champion lost their top player, Lexi Kilfoyl, who spent the summer playing for the USA junior women’s national training team and is now a freshman sensation at Alabama.

Diane Stephenson, who coached the Wildcats to both titles, stepped down not long after last season ended. Soon after, players bolted. Hannah Church transferred to Berkeley Prep. Brooke and Caitlin Blankenship transferred to River Ridge. Only four players from last year’s roster returned.

There were other aces besides Kilfoyl who graduated. River Ridge can no longer rely on Melanie Rogers, now at Warner.

Hernando County also had to bid farewell to some powerful arms. Ali Shenefield left Hernando High with a slew of records: single-season school marks for shutouts (18) and career records for strikeouts (935), wins (78) and shutouts (45). Springstead’s Mariah Galhouse, who had a 0.72 ERA and close to 200 strikeouts last season, is gone, too.

Related: 2019 Tampa Bay Times’ all-Tampa Bay softball

Others switched schools.

Giulia Desiderio, a South Carolina commit, transferred from Hudson to River Ridge and teams with the Blankenship sisters to give the Royal Knights a considerable boost to their lineup.

River Ridge’s Kurt Goluba, one of the few coaches left with any longevity at one school, has spent more time getting used to the new faces on his team than to those of his opponents.

“For me, I haven’t really noticed the coaching changes too much — yet,” Goluba said.

For Goluba and Bell, the biggest adjustment, more than the changes among coaches and players, is the new playoff system implemented by the Florida High School Athletic Association.

The format places more emphasis on strength of schedule, which means teams are trying to face as many quality opponents as possible.

“That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve had to deal with since taking over,” Bell said. “And our schedule is tough. We’re in three of the best tournaments in the state. But it’s good. This will prepare us for we need to be at the end of the season.”