The circle is what counts, or, to be more precise, it’s who’s in that circle that matters.
Pitching is the key in softball. A dominant pitcher can help a team overcome all sorts of problems, both offensively and defensively. In Citrus County, two of the four teams have pitchers returning who got plenty of time in the circle in 2018, which should benefit both.
That’s especially true at Crystal River, which went 20-4 last season and reached the Elite Eight before falling 3-0 to Land O’ Lakes. The Pirates rode Jaden Vickers’ pitching to that achievement, and she returns to try and take them beyond that.
Lecanto, too, has its top pitcher from 2018 back in Becca Adams, but her task will be more difficult. The main reason: experience, or a lack of it anyway. The Panthers have just one senior on the squad, as well as five sophomores and a freshman.
At Citrus and Seven Rivers Christian, new players take over the top pitching role. Citrus did have one of its best pitchers back from last season’s 16-11 team, but in the Hurricanes’ first game of the season, Madi Spires suffered a broken foot. She’ll be out, according to Citrus coach Larry Bishop, six to eight weeks — which could allow her to recover in time for the district tournament.
Seven Rivers, 16-6 overall and 3-2 in 2A-5 a year ago, lost its top two pitchers, but the third one in the Warriors’ pitching forum returns. Caroline Russ, just an eighth-grader, was 3-0 in 2018 with a 0.00 earned-run average in 16 innings pitched. She also had 30 strikeouts while surrendering just one hit.
Blocking the hopes of county teams in their prospective districts are the same culprits who filled that role last season. In 6A-7, defending district champ Springstead figures to again be at, or at least near, the top; in 2A-5, Seven Rivers will have to get past both Academy of the Lakes and Canterbury, two teams which have won four of the past six 2A state championships.
Three times the Pirates faced Springstead in 2018 and lost by scores of 2-0, 2-1 and, in the 6A-7 final, 3-2. But in this case, the fourth time was the charm — the two rivals met again in the 6A regional quarterfinals and this time Crystal River won, 3-2.
Four games and five runs separated the two teams. Don’t expect it to be much different this year.
As a junior, Vickers went 17-4 in the circle with a 0.65 ERA. In 130 innings, she struck out a phenomenal 232 batters, or 1.8 per inning.
She was also extremely good offensively, batting .474 with nine doubles, three triples, a home run and 19 RBI.
Still, the Pirates have lost six starters from a year ago.
“We’ve lost a lot of offense,” said coach Deon Copeland. “Four of those players batted over .300 last year. And we’ve lost a lot of defense.”
But the cupboard is hardly bare. Joining Vickers are standouts Alyssa Hamilton, a senior shortstop (.362, six doubles, four triples, a homer, 16 RBI and 27 runs scored) and junior catcher Caliann Rogers (.366, six doubles, one triple, one homer, 17 RBI, 24 runs).
“We still have some solid returning players, leaders who are seniors and who saw a lot of action last year,” Copeland said, “and who are looking to step up and make an impact this year.”
The three teams expected to challenge for the top spot in 6A-7 were defending champ Springstead, Crystal River and Dunnellon, teams which in 2018 finished in those exact positions. The dark horse in the race was supposed to be Citrus, which lost four key contributors including three-year circle starter Katelyn Parks, from last season’s squad, which was 3-7 in 6A-7.
But the Hurricanes had a lot back, including Spires, who split time in the circle with Parks.
That scenario was altered in the first game, when Spires (7-6 last season, 3.23 ERA) broke her foot. Still, ’Canes’ coach Bishop, ever the optimist, has maintained his outlook.
“That happens in high school athletics,” he said. “It’s a huge loss, in our sport everything is predicated on the circle, so to lose her is a setback.
“But then again, we’ve got some others — (sophomore) Stephanie Wirthman, she pitched on the JV last year and she’s stepped in. And Mattie Linhart, our shortstop, she also pitches a little bit, and Morgan Sowell can step in too.”
If the Citrus pitchers deliver, they could still mount a threat. The Hurricanes have lots of talent, starting with Linhart, a sophomore (.370 in 2018, seven doubles, four triples, one homer, 29 RBI, 28 runs); Alexis Frederick, a junior third baseman (.420, five doubles, one triple, five homers, 20 RBI, 32 runs); sophomore second baseman Shyanne Waller (.457, nine doubles, three triples, 24 RBI, 34 runs); senior outfielder Zarrie Washington (.341, two doubles, two triples, 11 RBI, 16 runs); and sophomore catcher Ashton Lewis (.362, two doubles, one triple, 11 RBI, 15 runs).
“We felt very good coming into the season and we still feel very comfortable where we’re at,” Bishop said. “Defensively, we’re still very good. Offensively, we feel good where we’re at right now.”
The Panthers struggled to a 1-9 record in 6A-7 in 2018 (9-12 overall), much of the problem due to errors in the field. They averaged nearly five errors a game, which led to 93 unearned runs.
Lecanto coach Robert Dupler wants that to change this season, although his team’s youth may dictate how much improvement can be accomplished.
“Reality is what reality is,” Dupler said pragmatically. “I’m very happy with what I’ve got. I’ve got an extremely talented sophomore class, and the freshmen I have, one on JV and one I kept on the varsity, are going to complement the program at the end of the year.
“We just have to figure out how we can improve from where we are today. Defensively, we’re not making a lot of mistakes like we did last year, but sometimes your play dictates the mistakes you make.”
The team’s only senior is returning standout Madison Fox, an outfielder who hit .434, with three doubles, two triples, 17 runs scored and 15 stolen bases. Adams, a junior whose record in the circle was 5-6 with a 5.13 ERA, did produce offensively with a .333 average and 14 RBI.
Other returnees include junior Sara Hoover (.355, six RBI); and sophomores Kaleigh Thomas (.393, 12 RBI, 14 runs), Kaleigh Nonnenmacher (.321, seven RBI, 14 runs) and Elizabeth Bochert (.393, six RBI, 13 runs).
Dupler sees four teams (Crystal River, Springstead, Dunnellon, Citrus) battling it out for the top spot in 6A-7.
SEVEN RIVERS CHRISTIAN
The Warriors have a particular problem, and it has nothing to do with its talent — there’s an abundance of that — or its won-loss record, which, over the past five years, is an overall 82-27.
Their problem is twofold: Academy at the Lakes and Canterbury. In 2018, Academy went 26-4 overall and won the 2A state championship. The team the Wildcats defeated in the Elite Eight game was Canterbury, which won the 2A title in 2017.
So even though Seven Rivers has a plethora of talent, its challenge to just reach the 2A-5 tournament final will be huge.
“I think we’ll be really strong this year, but it will be the same old story,” Dreyer said. “We’ve got to beat those two teams in our district. We’ve got to push a couple more runs across the plate and prevent them from scoring their extra runs.
“We usually play some pretty good games against them but we haven’t been able to figure out how to turn the score around, but we’re working on it.”
First, however, is what the Warriors have lost. True, only two players graduated, but they were a pair of longtime standouts, Delaney Byers and Jessica Newberry. Both were two-way phenoms, extremely adept at the plate and in the circle.
Replacing them will be the previously-mentioned Russ, who is also strong offensively (.368, five doubles, two triples, one homer, 26 RBI, 19 runs), and sophomore Patience Chesnutt, who played both third and second base in 2018 (.400, two doubles, two triples, one homer, 13 RBI, 24 runs).
“With Caroline and Patience on the mound, with them having the two main roles we have with them pitching, they’re going to be the catalysts,” said Warriors coach Gary Dreyer. “If they play well, the team will do well.”
Certainly offense should not be a problem. Also returning is catcher Jennah Kay Williams (.488, two doubles, three triples, 13 RBI, 19 runs), who’s entering her third year as a starter behind the plate, and she’s just a freshman.
Then there’s also junior shortstop Allison Phillips (.316, five doubles, two triples, three homers, 14 RBI, 31 runs); freshman outfielder Melody Byers (.297, seven doubles, one triple, one homer, 14 RBI, 26 runs); and junior outfielder Maeve McDougal (.312, seven RBI, 13 runs).