Contenders, not pretenders
By JOHN C. COTEY
Published February 6, 2007
It has been 15 years since Pasco County last won a softball championship, when Kristen Maguire snapped a two-out single in the top of the seventh to score Kara D'Agata and Amber Martinez retired the side in order in the bottom half of the inning in Ridgewood's 7-6 win over Berkeley Prep. We won't go as far as to predict that drought ends this year, but at Mitchell and Pasco and heck, maybe even Gulf and Zephyrhills, there are high hopes for 2007.
Last season, we picked 13 players for the all-county first team. Of the 13, seven return this year. Mitchell's Layne Spencer decided not to play, and Pasco's Alex Hartshorn transferred to Chamberlain. The others graduated. Here's the list of all-county returners:
Jessica Davis, Jr., Zephyrhills: Team ace in the playoffs, 11-5 with a 2.89 ERA and 56 strikeouts. Nicole Denny, Sr., River Ridge: 27 wins in two seasons and an even 100 strikeouts last year.
Courtney Stager, Jr., Mitchell: Coach Scott Bisbe says she's the best catcher in the state. A .460 average with 48 runs and 25 RBIs backs him up.
Brianne Farmer, Jr., Pasco: The Pirates' every-day shortstop hit .476 with four home runs and 26 RBIs.
Ashley Stager, Sr., Mitchell: The FSU-bound shortstop hit .478 with 43 runs and 12 steals, and has a rocket arm.
Naye Naye Black, Jr., Zephyrhills: Got speed? Black does, stealing 26 bases last year with a .355 average and 34 runs.
Olivia Kline, So. Mitchell: She'll go down as the county's most prolific power hitter by the time the season's over after belting eight homers in her rookie season.
Zephyrhills was 24-6 last year and made its first appearance in a region final. But a big part of that team - the infield, to be exact - has graduated. So do the Bulldogs, who will rely on the talented trio of 1B Ashley Anderton, P/SS Jessica Davis and OF Naye Naye Black, have any chance of repeating as Class 4A, District 8 champions?
Well, duh, says Gulf coach Rick Hohenthaner.
"As long as that wily coyote Craig Milburn is the coach, yes. He can get water out of a rock over there."
Former Ridgewood player Melissa Tipton, now Monaghan, takes over at Wesley Chapel, where she inherits Florida A&M signee Shayla Clark. Clark was an honorable-mention all-county pick last season as the Wildcats struggled to a 5-14 campaign.
Former Pasco volleyball coach Christine Webb will guide Wiregrass Ranch in its first season, but with all freshmen and sophomores it will be a bumpy road.
Academy at the Lakes will join the FHSAA next season, but has a bevy of young talent, led by Brittney Scott.
By the numbers
1 Home runs Kline needs to set the career county record, held by Ridgewood's Jessica Birchmeier 8.
3 Teams that won 20 games last year: Mitchell, Zephyrhills and Pasco.
24-6 Record of both Mitchell and Zephyrhills last season.
15 Years since the county's last state title (Ridgewood in 1992).
7 Coaches who have been with teams for three years or less (and we're counting Craig Milburn, who is entering his third season at Zephyrhills but has been around a few years longer).
2 Coaches who have been with their teams six years or longer (Mitchell's Scott Bisbe, entering his seventh, and River Ridge's Ernie Beck, starting his 13th)
Catch us if you can
Most coaches agree: Mitchell is the team to beat this season.
But those same coaches also will tell you the Mustangs aren't unbeatable.
On paper, though, they look very good. Kline and the Stager sisters give them the best middle of the lineup in the county, and junior speedster Tanisha Dixon should score a ton of runs with those bats behind her. If Kline continues to get better as a pitcher and not just a slugger, the Mustangs (24-6 last year, 44-12 the past two) will be tough to beat.
A lot has to go right to make state, but Mitchell is every bit as talented as the three River Ridge state teams (2003-05). The Royal Knights had several of the county's best players and this year's Mustangs can make that same claim. What's more, Mitchell coach Scott Bisbe is a former River Ridge assistant, so he's got a few Ernie Beck tricks up his sleeve.
River Ridge coach Ernie Beck returns Nicole Denney and fellow seniors Shauna Ward, Kelly Lamb, Taylor Morris and Michelle Miller. He has also a solid junior class, so last year's 14-12 record in a rebuilding season should be improved in 2007. The Royal Knights had fits with Land O'Lakes and Ridgewood last year, and you can expect those teams to battle it out again for Class 5A, District 7 supremacy with the Royal Knights the frontrunner.
The Gators, 14-5 last year, lost a ton of talent (five first- or second-teamers have moved on) and will be hard-pressed for a repeat of last year's playoff performance. Junior infielder Alexis Aubuchon leads the way.
The Rams will rely on senior pitchers Rikki Cotto and Amanda Thomas, and junior starters Bree Monaco (LF), Megan Slotter (SS) and Bree McCleary are back as well. Coach Amber Starkey says she will start three freshmen, but is excited about their future.
Hudson coach Chrissy Cooper started the turnaround last year, and with all the good vibes hovering over the Cobras girls athletic programs these days (see soccer, volleyball), you never know.
John C. Cotey can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6261.
Gulf's turnaround from an 0-24 season a few years back is just about complete. This year, the Bucs should challenge for the Sunshine Athletic Conference crown, provided their pitching comes through.
Few teams in the county boast as much senior talent - six of them start, the most since Hohenthaner took over five years ago - as the Bucs. Shortstop Julie Wisniewski is one of the best around, the outfield is speedy and tough to get a hit by, and junior catcher Devin Fellman gets much of the credit for guiding the Bucs turnaround from Hohenthaner.
The Bucs lost a 1-0, eight-inning heartbreaker to Zephyrhills in the district semifinals last year, making them awfully hungry.
Don't sleep on us
Pasco and Zephyrhills will again battle it out (with Gulf) in what might be the county's toughest district (4A-8). The Pirates get back Brianne Farmer, one of the country's best shortstops and an all-county pick last year. They have two of the snappiest arms around in returning all-county second-team pitcher Liz Garcia and sophomore Colena Lazar, a lefty with arguably the county's overpowering stuff.
The Bulldogs almost lost all-county centerfielder Naye Naye Black, who moved away in the fall but returned shortly after Christmas and will be back roaming the outfield. Coach Craig Milburn is hoping pitchers Andrea Durrett and Kaitlyn Hutchison develop into forces so he can use star Jessica Davis more at shortstop.