Starting this week, six Hernando County girls fast-pitch softball teams will unveil all their offseason diligence.
Due to FHSAA realignment, Season 25 offers opportunities on the diamond in three new districts.
Last spring, the Lady Leopards' 11th regional playoff appearance followed Hernando High's ninth district championship - and first since 2004.
Since skipper Kevin Bittinger took the reins, HHS has added four Hernando County titles - including the last two.
Yet that hasn't been enough to whet the appetite of the Purple and Gold's palate.
Bittinger's ninth team is hungry. It'd love nothing better than to add a third regional title and reach the elusive Final Four.
HHS is bubbling with optimism based on 10 returning lettermen: seniors Tana McDaniel, Courtney Riddle, Summer Solovitch and Nikki Patrick; juniors Megan Lane, Sierra Cannon, Danielle Harvey, Darrian Hunter and Erica Lewis; and sophomore Lauren Moore.
The Purple and Gold feature eight returning starters: pitcher Riddle, catcher Lane, first baseman Hunter, second baseman Solovitch, shortstop McDaniel, third baseman Harvey, center fielder Lewis and outfielder Cannon.
Coincidentally, four of the team's five All-Hernando County selections from last seaosn return in Lane, Riddle, McDaniel and Solovitch.
Riddle is the county's defending Player of the Year while Coach Bittinger was named Coach of the Year for the third time.
The biggest shoes to fill are replacing the team's leading hitter, center fielder Ashley Sims.
"You don't replace kids like Ashley (Sims)," declared Coach Bittinger, who opens the season at 121-88 lifetime. "A lot of our recent success has to do with this senior class and Ashley. Defensively, one kid is not going to replace what Ashley brought to each and every game. She was a great leader, too."
Riddle, who hit a career-best .448 with a school-record 42 runs batted in, not only fielded her position extremely well, but was voted as the circuit's finest hurler.
It's hard to argue against Riddle's 26 complete games (mostly against stout competition) in 29 games pitched, featuring 188.2 innings and 177 strikeouts against 47 walks.
"She's got a little more velocity this year," explained Coach Bittinger. "The thing I like the most is she attacks the strike zone. Normally seniors scare me. But I'm telling you this bunch is hungry.
"A lot of this group's motivation stems from Creekside celebrating on our field (in the regional final following a 10-0 win). This group (of seniors) is committed and still hungry."
Offensively, Lane batted .400 with 25 RBI; McDaniel hit .363 with 27 RBI, while Solovitch excelled in the clutch and finished hitting .318 with 28 RBI.
On whether Bittinger is embracing this year's role as the hunted rather than being the hunter, "We've embraced the underdog role here for a while," he said. "But I've stressed to the girls that every time we show up to play this year, I'll guarantee you that the other team has either underlined or circled our game on their calendar.
"We have to accept the fact that we are the team to beat each and every time we take the field," Bittinger said.
The newly realigned Class 5A, District 7 consists of Nature Coast, Hernando, Central, Weeki Wachee, Pasco, Zephyrhills and Wesley Chapel.
"There's a sense of familiarity," stressed Bittinger. "I like our district because it's close. There are built-in opportunities to rekindle rivalries with, say, Pasco and Zephyrhills."
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In 2013, the fourth Nature Coast Technical softball coach in four years, Ernie Chatman, guided the team to a 14-13 run.
With Chatman back, NCT features nine returning lettermen, led by six returning starters: Chyloe Gonzalez, David Courtney, Brittany Rodriguez, Brianna "Breezy" Harvey, Brooke Major and Kat Gonzalez. All are underclassmen except for Major.
Both David (.307 average, 27 RBI) and Chyloe Gonzalez (.413 average, 22 RBI) are two of last year's three Lady Shark All-County selections.
An infusion of talent has surfaced with a freshman class featuring: catcher/outfielder Abby Marshall, pitcher/second baseman Alyssa Gonzalez, pitcher/first baseman Abbey Primavera, third baseman/second baseman Cerina Brooks, first baseman/pitcher Celine Kordon and first baseman Miranda Arroyo.
That group of first-year varsity players is expected to push returning lettermen Victoria Eland, Tashylla Brockington and Marriah Adams for playing time.
Unlike the past few years, NCT has more depth in the circle than it's ever had.
As of press time, Chatman has yet to decide on who'll start on the mound in the season-opening 5A-7 game at Pasco on Feb.11.
"In this sport, everything starts with pitching," noted Chatman, the all-time Hernando County leader in victories at 217-74. "Around here, everyone's pitchers are back. Come playoffs, it'll all come down to pitching. Fortunately, we've got some depth there.
"Primavera, Kordon and Alyssa have all pitched, but we've also got to put a solid group behind our pitcher," insisted Chatman.
Chatman believes with the influx of talent that the Lady Sharks will be two-deep at every position on the field - a huge change for the California Street program.
"Hernando was the co-favorite with Eustis and Tavares last year," detailed Chatman. "They're the favorite this year until somebody beats them. I'd say we're in the chase (for a district title). Pitching will be the difference. We've got to perform on the mound to be competitive."
Twelve consecutive losing seasons gave way to Central's splendid 18-8 run last spring under Tyson Ellis.
Ellis, in his seventh season, has five returning starters: pitcher Kaeleen Koehler, catcher Alexis Eisenhauer, center fielder Whitney Roberts, left fielder/second baseman Aaliyah Roberts and third baseman Hannah Charlwood.
The largest shoes to fill will be replacing three-time All-County pick Katie McCarthy.
McCarthy, a four-year starter, was again the Lady Bears' offensive fixture hitting .493 with 22 extra-base hits, plus 31 RBI.
"We're not going to replace McCarthy in our lineup," lamented Coach Ellis, who begins the season 55-88 lifetime. "We lose all the intangibles she brought to the program."
CHS does return the sophomore Koehler, who hit .307 with 21 RBI, but earned her credentials as a southpaw pitcher.
In 20 appearances, Koehler (11-8) completed 17 starts. Across 125.1 innings pitched, she fanned 114 batters while issuing 16 free passes.
On where the Lady Bears fit in, "It's a new day for us in a new district," Ellis said. "We're excited to be in a new district. We're in a district with traditionally strong teams like Pasco and Zephyrhills. I believe we have the potential to be a top-three team.
"Our goal is to reach the district final opposite Hernando. We don't want to meet them in the quarterfinals or semis."
Rounding out 5A-7's local members, Weeki Wachee, begins its second season at the varsity level with a new mentor - mathematics instructor Charlene Ross.
Ross, who played softball collegiately in Virginia, will inherit a team that finished 2-17 last spring.
The Lady Hornets' 11-deep roster features four seniors - Holly Brumfiel, Tiffany Fowler, Megan Suiters and Ray Piecss - along with Lauren Brigham, Brooke Spaulding, Ashley Vera, Noelle Neuguth, Ashley Leo, Kaetlyn Taylor and Sam Page.
"I am very excited about coaching the team this year!" said Ross. "We have many
returning players as well as some up-and-coming new ones with a lot of talent. It should be a good year for Hornets' softball!"
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Springstead is the only Hernando County team in the newly realigned 6A-10. That district also includes: Mitchell, St. Petersburg-Dixie Hollins, Largo and Seminole-Osceola.
After back-to-back-to-back playoff appearances from 2010-12, SHS dipped to .500 at 11-11 last spring.
The Spring Hill crew uncharacteristically floundered at the finish line dropping eight of its nine last games.
No loss was bigger than its 6A-6 Tournament tilt at Ocala-West Port versus Citrus. Ahead 6-0, SHS closed its season with a stunning 8-7 loss in extra innings.
The Lady Eagles return 10 varsity lettermen from last spring, including seven starters: second baseman Brittny Desmond, pitcher/first baseman Louisa Disi, catcher Brooke Fischbach, third baseman Sarah Kelly, center fielder Shelbi Ard, first baseman Kelli Wall and outfielder Morgan Selby.
Similar to Hernando and Central, SHS lost a four-year starter and three-time All-County selection, Hailey Drawe, to commencement exercises.
"You can't replace all the things Hailey Drawe meant to this program," admitted 12th-year skipper Craig Swartout, who opens his season behind a career 167-108 won-lost slate. "How do you replace of the greatest players who ever played here? You can't.
"But with graduation that gives some other girls an opportunity to shine," added Swartout. "Honestly, we might have relied on her too much, especially on the offensive end. Her leaving forces every girl on this team to step up their game."
Swartout has already given freshman Abby Oliver the responsibility of filling shortstop.
"Abby is so athletic. You don't see that kind of ability in many incoming freshmen," he said. "Sometimes you have to start freshmen out of necessity - that's not the case with us - she's earned the spot."
SHS does return three All-County performers from 2013 in Disi (.388 average, 32 RBI), Fischbach (.366, 12 RBI) and Desmond (.403, 9 RBI).
On the hill, the southpaw Disi (8-9) fanned 133 batters across 117 innings.
"Louise is our No. 1 pitcher," declared Swartout. "When she got hurt late last season, our dynamic changed. She's the straw that stirs our drink."
As far as the county race, Swartout agrees, "Based on Hernando's track record, they have a leg up on everybody in the county."
On new digs in 6A-10, "I really don't care who we play. We play who they (FHSAA) tell us to play," Swartout said. "I'm familiar with Mitchell, but I haven't really seen the other teams.
"To be honest, I don't know what to expect. We won't have a good picture until we play everybody the first time," he added.
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When the Hernando Christian Academy Lady Lions lost to Seven Rivers Christian in the first round of the 2A-4 Tourney last spring, 9-1, it marked the first time in nearly a decade that the Brooksville crew did not reach the regional level.
The Lady Lions (13-6) were on the mend after losing their No. 1 pitcher, Ashley McKay, to an anterior cruciate ligament tear.
McKay and her 137 strikeouts in 64 innings gave way to Chelsea Lowe. Plus, HCA lost All-County selection Holly Field behind the plate to graduation.
The bright spots for third-year skipper and athletic director Mike Drummond are the eight returning starters including: Lowe, catcher Madison Frazier, first baseman Nikki Klukowski, center fielder Kelly. Klukowski, outfielder/second baseman Lyndsey Spencer, second baseman/shortstop Mary Jackson, outfielder Milly Jackson, utility player Amber Vanderham and third baseman Cayla Phillips.
Despite the loss of the Lions' battery mates, McKay and Field, "Defensively, we could be decent, if our pitching holds up," emphasized Coach Drummond, who begins the season at 29-13.
"Right now, we're all still in basketball mode," indicated Drummond. "We've had two softball practices so far, and the field is still under water due to all the rain."
On coexisting in 2A-8 with Tampa-Bayshore Christian, St. Petersburg-Canterbury, St. Petersburg-Keswick Christian and Clearwater-Lakeside Christian, "Over the last few years we've had our hands full with Academy at the Lakes and now they (FHSAA) stick us in a district with the defending 2A state champions (Canterbury). What are you going to do? It's kind of frustrating playing for second."
On his team's greatest concern prior to the season-opener, "It's our batting," noted Drummond. "With our pitching, we should be competitive. But the key to our success is predicated on whether we can get the bats rolling.
"That's where really relied on Holly and Ashley in the past," he added. "Those were two big bats that carried us for long stretches. Right now, the key is for us to just put the ball in play."