TAMPA — Few folks can remember a time in the Tampa Bay area when so many eighth-graders, freshmen and sophomores have displayed such power in softball.
Four young Tampa Bay players have been nothing short of mind boggling:
⋅ Canterbury eighth-grader Morgen Talley ranks third in the state with 11 home runs according to MaxPreps, playing against one of the toughest team schedules in the state, which translates to the toughest pitchers. Talley, by the way, also is hitting .425 with 30 RBIs.
⋅ Newsome freshman Karly Shelton is tied with Talley in homers, also playing against some of the state’s best pitching. Shelton is hitting .550 and is tied for fourth in the state with 39 RBIs.
⋅ East Lake freshman Jalyn Sharkey is tied for the fifth-best home run total in the state with nine, while hitting .508 with 34 RBIs.
⋅ Nature Coast sophomore Izzy LaRoche leads the state with 46 RBIs while hitting .506.
East Lake coach Kristie Delk — who said she has never seen anything like this young power surge — believes it’s an intriguing sign of the times and maybe a trend of more strength to come.
“Many of these players are learning fundamentals years before they play high school,” Delk said. “They are getting private lessons and playing travel ball long before they come to high school as freshmen. When they get here, they’re ready to go.”
And much of the young talent, like the four aforementioned players, are simply extraordinarily athletic and self motivated.
“I absolutely love to play the game,” said Shelton, a shortstop who lifts weights almost every day. “I don’t play because anybody else wants me to play. I play because I love it.”
Shelton added that she is driven by all the young talent around the Tampa Bay area.
“I see these girls hitting 11 home runs and driving in (46 runs) and I say to myself, ‘You have to keep working as hard as you can if you want to be the best,’” said Shelton, whose most impressive stat might actually be that she has struck out only two times.
“I’m sure those girls are saying the same thing to themselves.”
Talley, who is smooth and quick at 6-feet tall, said she is excited about her power surge, but admits to being a little surprised by it.
“I thought I would have a good year but I didn’t think (about hitting 11 homers),” said Talley, who did not hit a single homer in 13 games as a seventh-grader and hit only one as a sixth-grader. “I think this is happening because of all the hard work I did in the offseason, working on improving my swing.”
Canterbury coach Jody Moore said Talley, “has really come a long way. She has been with the team since the sixth grade and now this year is kind of the big year where the lightbulb has gone off and everything is coming together. She gets it and she continues to get better.”
Sharkey also admits to being surprised with her power burst, partly because it was something she never really thought about.
“At the beginning of the year coach said I could hit 10 home runs this season and I really didn’t think I could hit that many,” said Sharkey, who said one of her tricks for success is singing a song in her head when she steps into the batter’s box. “Now I have just one more to go to get 10. But you can’t think about trying to hit a home run. If you do that you lose your form.”
At Nature Coast LaRoche has a little different story. She came to softball two years ago after playing 10 years of baseball, a switch that couldn’t have pleased her more.
“I used to think softball would be slow and the players wouldn’t be any good,” LaRoche said. “I was wrong. Way wrong. Softball is a better game. Much better.”
The transition from baseball wasn’t overly difficult, but it was sometimes tricky, particularly when it came to hitting a pitcher that is throwing from 43 feet as opposed to 60 feet, 6 inches.
“Overall (softball) is quicker and more fast paced,” LaRoche said. “You have to be quicker to keep up.”
Nature Coast coach Jug Olmstead said the sky is the limit for LaRoche, a five-tool player who could one day end up a major Division I-A softball program.
At the moment, the focus for all these young players is helping their respective schools go deep into the playoffs, which begin next week with district tournaments.
Optimism is high because Newsome (22-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state), East Lake (16-6), Nature Coast (17-6) and Canterbury (15-9) have all played some of the toughest schedules in the state against some of the best pitchers.
“We feel totally prepared,” Shelton said. “We are all confident.”