Beginning this morning, Hernando County’s four remaining Dixie Softball All-Star squads face supreme litmus tests.
Spring Hill’s three District 4 champions – the Darlings (ages 7-8), Angels (ages 9-10) and Ponytails (ages 11-12) – joins its Debs (ages 16-19) in this weekend’s State Championship Tournaments at the Okeechobee County Sports Complex.
Despite its four entries, Hernando County will not be represented in the Sweeties (ages 5-6) or Belles (ages 13-15) divisions.
While Spring Hill’s program has an opportunity to surpass its record of three state titles at the Belleview Sports Complex in 2010, for the first time since the millennium, Brooksville’s program will not be represented at states.
Spring Hill raised back-to-back Debs state championship banners under Louie Caiazzo in 2010 at Belleview and 2011 at William S. Kendrick Sports Complex in Carrabelle.
This year’s team includes: right fielder/catcher/pitcher Cloey Cremeans, shortstop/catcher Gabriella Eith, pitcher/first baseman Cheyenne Gainey, pitcher/outfielder/infielder Marissa Heiselt, pitcher/third baseman/shortstop Kara Masters, left fielder/shortstop/catcher/pitcher Amber Mayersky, catcher/outfielder/second baseman Cheyenne Moore, catcher/third baseman/outfielder Noelle Neuguth, third baseman Tiffany O’Brien, second baseman/outfielder Natalia Pellot, center fielder Rayanna Riecss and first baseman/shortstop Kelli Wall.
Weeki Wachee High assistant softball coach Kevin Riecss returns as the Debs head coach. Riecss will be assisted by Matt Collins and Mark Mayersky.
Riecss’ club features seven returning All-Stars from last summer including: Gainey, Masters, Mayersky, Moore, Neuguth, Rayanna Riecss and Wall.
Interestingly, the West Hernando County crew is woven like a quilt with players representing Weeki Wachee, Springstead, Hudson, Fivay and Tampa-Jefferson’s prep programs.
The best known of this local group is Rayanna Riecss. Riecss hit .439 in her senior season with the Lady Hornets.
At first glance, Coach Riecss describes this club as a veteran team that has been there and done that.
Going in, his biggest concern is whether the team will hit. He says the players know the game, but they’ve got to put up some crooked numbers quickly in Okeechobee to overcome the lack of District 4 action.
“Over a month’s time all we’ve done is practice and practice,” noted Coach Riecss. “We’ve had some competitive scrimmages, but there’s nothing like answering lingering questions under game situations.”
“What I’ve learned with this group is they’re fighters,” described Coach Riecss. “They’ve been able to adjust to whatever pitching we’ve faced. Even if we’ve fallen behind early, this group hasn’t given up.”
In the arms race, Coach Riecss will rely on a trio of hurlers: Gainey, Heiselt and Masters.
“We don’t have any Kama Woodalls or Courtney Riddles here,” said Coach Riecss, referring to two of the top pitchers in the Tampa Bay area. “But we’ve got kids who can throw strikes. They have to have faith that even if they give up a homer, our defense will keep us in the game. The key is we’ve got to keep walks to a minimum.”
Defensively, Coach Riecss sees his outfield as his team’s strength behind his daughter Rayanna in center, Mayerski in left, and Heiselt and Moore rotating in right.
“I feel our outfield is top-notch,” insisted Riecss. “Those guys can cover ground in a hurry and they’ve got good arms.”
Around the horn, he’s penciled in Wall at first base, Pelot at second, Eith at shortstop and O’Brien at the hot corner. Behind the plate, Spring Hill expects to rotate Neuguth and Moore.
Offensively, Coach Riecss isn’t quite settled at who’ll bat 1-2. That’ll be a game-time decision. However, he expects Rayanna Riecss, O’Brien, Neuguth and Wall to form the heart of the lineup.
In the five-team field, the local Debs squad drew an opening-round bye. Spring Hill is scheduled to open at 9:30 a.m. Saturday against Friday’s survivor of Franklin County/West Pasco.
Coincidentally, Franklin County and West Pasco are the last two Debs champions.
“There’s no doubt I’d rather play Friday,” remarked Coach Riecss. “But the bye will allow us to see the others firsthand.
“The bottom line for us is we’ve got to come ready to play,” he added. “Especially since we know we’re playing at least twice on Saturday. The key for us is we’ve got to play every game like it’s an elimination game.”
Florida’s state champion will advance to 39th Debs World Series at Atoka, Tennessee.
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The task facing Spring Hill’s Darlings is formidable. The six-team, double-elimination event begins Friday morning. Only Monday night’s championship game winner advances to the World Series in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
Since 2000, no previous Hernando County team has captured a Darlings state crown. Melissa Russell’s Spring Hill Darlings came the closest, finishing second at Belleview in 2006 and third at Sneads in 2007.
This year’s Darlings feature: third baseman/pitcher Alexis Adelman, second baseman Kamryn Baker, outfielder Jaiden Chechile, shortstop Keeliana Doran, right fielder Aryanna Eliopoulos, left fielder Mackenzie Eland, catcher/outfielder Hailie Krieg, right fielder Bella Meredith, pitcher/third baseman Zoey Primavera, outfielder Ashlynn Sentner, outfielder Sarah Tipton and first baseman Makayla Way.
First-year Chris Way, the former Hudson and Ridgewood High standout pitcher, will serve as head coach, assisted by Kris Baker, Joe Ficarrotta and Dan Tipton.
Spring Hill features three returning Darlings All-Stars: Adelman, Primavera and Makayla Way.
Since capturing its second district crown in two summers, Coach Way has made baserunning a point of emphasis. The kids have to improve in their baserunning, especially looking at the coaches as they run around the bases, stressed Coach Way.
Knowing the Okeechobee Complex features all-grass infields, the team shifted its practices to local grass infields.
Spring Hill (3-0 overall) opens at 9 a.m. Saturday against host Okeechobee.
“The kids are more confident and our outfield is tenfold better than at districts,” noted Coach Way. “The team to beat is easy – that’s defending champion Holmes County. But over the years Belleview has had some great teams, too.”
After a pair of close scrapes with Wesley Chapel during District 4 action, Way believes his team is battle-tested.
“Wesley Chapel was no slouch,” detailed Way. “They were a good team. They taught us a lot about how to run the bases.”
Looking ahead, “We haven’t talked about winning districts; all we want to do is proceed forward,” explained Coach Way. “Winning Game 1 is huge; it’s hard to come back from a loss in that first round.”
On the keys to success, “Its defense for us,” identified Coach Way. “That’s our strong point.”
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After Spring Hill’s Angels captured their first district crown in four seasons, it set its sights on claiming its first state crown in this age group since 2012 in Franklin County.
Head coach Scott Budlove’s 4-1 squad enters the four-team, double-elimination event with eyes riveted on the 3rd annual Angels “X-play” World Series in Atoka, Tennessee.
Spring Hill’s Angels feature: third baseman/outfielder Kaitlyn Black, shortstop/second baseman/outfielder Faith Budlove, pitcher/shortstop Jennifer Hackett, second baseman/outfielder Alexis Lendo, outfielder Karlee Plensdorf, pitcher/second baseman/outfielder Victoria Ratigan, second baseman/outfielder Ava Rozsa, catcher/outfielder Sabrina Sessa, first baseman/outfielder Kelsey Shumate, outfielder Alexis Spring, catcher/outfielder Mariah Spring and first baseman/outfielder Alyssa Wheeler.
Coach Budlove will be assisted by Kerri Lendo and Joe Ratigan.
Since districts at the Anderson Sports Complex, the Angels have incessantly worked on their hitting.
“If we hit like we’re capable I don’t think people can touch us,” explained Coach Budlove. “At every level of play nerves can come into play. We’ve got a lot of first-time All-Stars, so my job is to calm the kids down to just play ball like they have all year.”
Budlove believes his team’s confidence is bubbling over.
“The camaraderie amongst the girls is rising every day,” noted Budlove. “We’re feeling better after knowing we knocked out the defending state champions in districts.”
On the tourney’s four-team field, “The scary thing is we don’t know much about any of the teams,” admitted Coach Budlove.
Budlove’s team goals are both simplistic and ambitious.
“We don’t want to lose an inning,” he pointed out. “I asked the girls if they were satisfied in just going to states and not a one person raised their hands. We have every intention of going to Tennessee.”
On his team’s keys to success, “Obviously, our pitching has to continue where we left off,” he said. “The bats came alive late in districts; they need to be stronger in Okeechobee.”
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After garnering its fifth district title in this age group over the past six seasons, Spring Hill’s Ponytails (3-0) remain hungry. During last month’s District 4 Tourney in Spring Hill, the locals knocked out the defending state champs from Wesley Chapel.
Spring Hill’s Ponytails feature: outfielder Raquel Camuglia, infielder Ashley Drewal, outfielder Morgan Johnson, pitcher/infielder Alyssa Kelly, infielder Hayden Kimbrough, infielder Cecilia McGee, infielder Mackenzie McIntyre, outfielder Lourdes Penichet, pitcher/infielder Hannah Rizzuto, pitcher/infielder Audrey Selby, outfielder Serena Stifanic and outfielder Tiana Stifanic.
Skipper Paul McGee will be assisted by Scott McIntyre and Frank Rizzuto.
Spring Hill will wade into a four-team “X-play” bracket opening at 9 a.m. today against host Okeechobee.
McGee indicated that in districts, his team learned it could play better. Despite some early miscues, his team’s strength lies with its pitching staff and defense.
“Since districts we’ve worked hard on improving our hitting,” noted Coach McGee. “We don’t want to be complacent. Being well-rounded is key; especially with our hitting.”
McGee has seen an uptick in confidence.
“(Ace pitcher) Alyssa (Kelly) feels her defense has her back,” described Coach McGee, “That does wonders for a pitcher’s confidence. At this point we have to continue to defend against walks and passed balls. In general, we’ve got to minimize our mistakes.”
Similar to Coach Budlove, McGee feels his team arrives battle-tested.
“We knew we had to buckle down against West Pasco. We learned we could play from behind,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t know if we’re fully vetted. We have three good pitchers and two really haven’t been used.”
In opening against Okeechobee, “We’re going in blind,” said McGee. “They’ve had extensive practices leading up to this game, but they haven’t played anyone in districts, so it’s a wash.”
“Our goal,” pointed out Coach McGee, “is to win every hitter/pitcher battle. Make no mistake about it, we want to win states, but right now our only focus is beating Okeechobee. The majority of our girls have never gotten past districts, but our eyes are definitely on the prize.”
At a Glance
What – Dixie Softball All-Stars State Tournaments
Who – Four teams in a double-elimination format featuring: Spring Hill Angels (ages 9-10) and Spring Hill Ponytails (ages 11-12) in X-play tournaments, Spring Hill Darlings (ages 7-8) and Spring Hill Debs (ages 17-19) in traditional play.
Where – Okeechobee County Sports Complex, 580 NW 27th Lane.
When – Today through Wednesday (weather permitting)
At Stake – State championship and trip to respective World Series.
2014 Spring Hill Darlings (ages 7-8)
NO. NAME POSITIONS
4 Alexis Adelman* 3B/P
7 Ashlynn Sentner OF
9 Jaiden Chechile OF
10 Makayla Way* 1B
11 Mackenzie Eland LF
12 Sarah Tipton OF
15 Kamryn Baker 2B
24 Zoey Primavera* P/3B
27 Hailie Krieg C/OF
34 Aryanna Eliopoulos RF
88 Bella Meredith RF
99 Keeliana Doran SS
* Denotes returning Darlings All-Star.
Head Coach – Chris Way
Assistant Coach – Kris Baker
Assistant Coach – Joe Ficarrotta
Assistant Coach – Dan Tipton
2014 Spring Hill Angels (ages 9-10)
NO. NAME POSITIONS
2 Alexis Lendo* 2B/OF
3 Faith Budlove SS/2B/OF
4 Alexis Spring OF
5 Ava Rozsa 2B/OF
7 Mariah Spring C/OF
11 Alyssa Wheeler 1B/OF
12 Sabrina Sessa* C/OF
13 Kaitlyn Black 3B/OF
14 Victoria Ratigan* P/2B/OF
21 Jennifer Hackett* P/SS
23 Karlee Plensdorf OF
26 Kelsey Shumate 1B/OF
* Denotes returning Angels All-Star.
Head Coach – Scott Budlove
Assistant Coach – Kerri Lendo
Assistant Coach – Joe Ratigan
2014 Spring Hill Ponytails (ages 11-12)
NO. NAME POSITIONS
1 Mackenzie McIntyre* INF
3 Lourdes Penichet OF
4 Hannah Rizzuto* P/INF
7 Cecilia McGee* INF
9 Tiana Stifanic* OF
15 Hayden Kimbrough INF
22 Serena Stifanic OF
24 Raquel Camuglia OF
28 Audrey Selby* P/INF
29 Alyssa Kelly* P/INF
44 Ashley Drewal INF
77 Morgan Johnson* OF
* Denotes returning Angels or Ponytails All-Star.
Head Coach – Paul McGee
Assistant Coach – Scott McIntyre
Assistant Coach – Frank Rizzuto
Spring Hill Debs (ages 17-19)
NO. NAME POSITIONS
3 Cloey Cremeans RF/C/P
5 Kelli Wall* 1B/SS
6 Natalia Pellot 2B/OF
8 Cheyenne Moore* C/OF/2B
10 Cheyenne Gainey* P/1B
11 Noelle Neuguth* C/3B/OF
12 Kara Masters* P/3B/SS
18 Rayanna Riecss* CF
19 Tiffany O’Brien 3B
23 Amber Mayersky* LF/SS/C/P
88 Marissa Heiselt P/OF/INF
97 Gabriella Eith SS/C
* Denotes returning Debs All-Star.
Head Coach – Kevin Riecss
Assistant Coach – Matt Collins
Assistant Coach – Mark Mayersky