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Hillsborough County Elite 8 Coaches Poll - Preseason, 2024

High school softball is officially back across the Sunshine State. After a spectacular week of preseason softball across the area, the intensity turns up slightly and the games begin to count.


The drive for Clermont has officially begun.


If you’re new to Bay Made Fastpitch, welcome to the first iteration of this season’s Elite 8 Coaches Poll. We send a poll each week to head and selected assistant coaches around a specific county and ask them to give us a ranking of the top eight teams, weekly. The poll is completely anonymous and turns out to consistently be the most accurate way to rank teams.


Hillsborough takes center stage, where the county looks for its first state champion since Holy Names in 2021 and its first public school state champion since Newsome won it all in 2015. Will the largest county in our coverage area produce a champion in 2024? We’ll soon see.


1. Plant, 27-5 (6 first-place votes)


What more can be said about the Panthers’ incredible run to the Class 7A State Championship Game that we haven’t already said? Just about every adjective that’s a synonym of miraculous has been put in an article. Yes, they finished with 27 wins and our friends to the south at Spanish River (Boca Raton) probably didn’t agree that Plant was an underdog. The people in Hillsborough County know that this program was in a dark place not all that long ago. This season is about a) proving that 2023 wasn’t a fluke and b) improving on a foundation that was built by a senior class that has gone down in Panther history.


Plant gets both of its pitchers back from a year ago in newly minted Eckerd College commit Cassidy Masters and Belmont signee Addison Swink. The latter, named the 2023 Hillsborough County Player of the Year doubles as the team’s leading hitter from last season and should get plenty of help from Graci Quinlan, who had clutch moment after clutch moment in the postseason run. Kate Mitchell-Compton should play a huge role in replacing the lineup production lost to graduation – the Panthers will need some of their underclassmen to step into larger roles to keep them at the top of the county rankings. The Panthers open at Riverview on Tuesday.

2. Steinbrenner, 19-8-1 (1 first-place vote)


Although receiving just a lone first-place vote, the Warriors were consistently at the top of the coaches’ rankings. They were on every poll received and didn’t rank lower than fifth. That’s about how you can describe Steinbrenner – consistent, yet searching for that elite status that usually comes with a deep playoff run. That’s the mantra, that’s the expectation, that’s the goal this season. Get to Clermont. No Ashley Blessin is awaiting in the first round of the regional tournament, Lakewood Ranch doesn’t have double-digit Division I players. The previous obstacles that have seemed insurmountable aren’t there anymore. And Steinbrenner recognizes that and understands it as it heads into the season.


The Warriors possess one of the county’s best pitching staffs. Eckerd College signee Saige Sampson is healthy and pairs with 2023 Hillsborough County Breakout Player of the Year Lilly Patton extremely well. Sophomore Madi Adams and freshman Ava Driscoll give them that full staff that other schools would love to have. Steinbrenner’s question, much like Plant, is what things will look like at the plate. Arizona State signee Lily Holtje is steady as ever and a breakout season for Western Carolina commit Emma Kindle appears likely. We’ll get a good glimpse of how runs will come across when Steinbrenner heads to Sumner on Tuesday.

3. Bloomingdale, 18-8


It’s now two consecutive seasons that the Bulls have fallen in extra inning heartbreakers against Pasco County opponents to finish their postseason runs after Land O’Lakes earned the right to represent Region 2 in the Class 6A State Semifinals last season. It seems repetitive to say – Bloomingdale is in the same boat as Steinbrenner and Berkeley Prep (which we’ll talk about in a moment) in that it just must find a way over the proverbial hump that keeps it from the state’s largest stage.


With 2023 Hillsborough County Pitcher of the Year Natalie Cable throwing like she has each of the past two years, the Bulls are going to win a lot of games. Especially when the UCLA pledge has proven that she can hit the ball well, too. Infielder Marley Boucher put together an impressive freshman season and returns with double play teammate Camryn VanGalder to lead Bloomingdale at the plate. If the Bulls can get just a little bit more out of role players like Cam Nolte, Amy Kinnard, Bryanna Rawlings and/or Miranda Dilling, that helps immensely. They’ll open on Friday with Wharton at home.

4. Berkeley Prep, 17-8 (3 first-place votes)


Perhaps that’s just Hillsborough’s theme this year: teams that have an incredible amount of talent just have to find a way to put it all together. And it feels harsh to write, but talking with the coaching staff of these schools, they’re usually in agreement. Berkeley Prep falls into that same category. Its 10-0 start led to a 7-8 finish the rest of the way that included a loss in the district championship game to Holy Names and a tough defeat in Ft. Myers at the hands of a senior-laden Bishop Verot.


On paper, if we had to answer the question of who’s the most complete team heading into the season, we’d point to the Buccaneers. They return all but one everyday starter and have a ton of lineup production returning between Holland Poe, Paige Quinn, Notre Dame signee Kaia Cortes, Gracie Murphy…you get the point. In the circle, Avery Powers showed ace potential as a freshman, then struggled as a sophomore with some injury issues – getting her healthy and getting some quality innings from Cortes and Murphy along the way goes a long way. Berkeley Prep opens Wednesday with rival Tampa Catholic.

5. Academy of the Holy Names, 15-7 (1 first-place vote)


It looked like the Jaguars were on their way to catching their stride at the right time between late April and May before they ran into the buzzsaw that is Calvary Christian in the Class 3A-Region 3 Tournament. It was difficult for AHN to get rolling because the program had two lengthy breaks between the school’s annual Mission Week and its traditional spring break – the Jaguars had played just five games in the season’s first month. This year, they’ll get an early test at the Bay Made Fastpitch Elite Invitational as a new participant ahead of a challenging schedule that’s the hallmark of teams in Class 3A.


Princeton signee KK Hollenkamp returns for her seventh, and final, season of varsity softball and will lead the Jaguars in the circle. Florida Southern commit Shelby Savitt will look to spell her after showing some extremely solid improvement with the ball in her hand from her sophomore to junior season. At the plate, the core of juniors between Kacey Scott, Elise McQuiston, Reese Keller, Claire Bohinick – there we go rambling again – is an underrated group in our eyes and should take another confident step forward in 2024. Holy Names start play on Tuesday at Clearwater Central Catholic in a matinee affair.

6. Gaither, 20-4


Admittedly, we were a little surprised to see the Cowboys consistently on polls to start the season. They lost a hefty amount of production to graduation. It appears there is respect for Gaither after the season it put together a year ago on its run to the Class 6A-Region 2 semifinals. It was ranked as high as second on one poll we received and was consistently in the 5-8 range.


Graduating Mimi Gooden is a tough loss in itself considering how well she buoyed the Cowboys at the plate and in the circle and that loss is compounded in the graduations of Alex Wilkes and Megan Loughren. The youngest Wilkes sister, Kacey, returns for her junior season and is joined by Aasia Scerbo, Jeirany Tavares and Adielyz Rivera, who were all productive at the plate in 2023 as starters. Gaither sees its schedule get tougher this season and it starts at Newsome on Tuesday.

7. Newsome, 16-9


The Wolves have been so consistently good over the last decade that last season probably would be considered a ‘down year,’ by their standards. Newsome’s saw its streak of four straight 20-win seasons ended, however, they did grab a district championship before giving Plant a tough time in the first round of the region tournament, so it was still a successful season. We have to remember that a lot of teams would be very happy with closing up with Newsome’s record from last season.


Its preseason results were a mixed bag. The Wolves run-ruled Wesley Chapel in the first game of the Land O’Lakes preseason classic, then the next night, saw themselves the victims of a run rule by the host Gators. Newsome’s strength will be in its outfield, which is one of the most athletic and speedy in the county. Between Bryant commit Ari Williams, USF signee Grace Chin and sophomore Sarai Nicholas, the Wolves have tremendous gap-to-gap coverage in their notoriously large ballpark. FIU signee Ciera Diaz and sophomore Addison Dresser is a great duo to anchor the Wolves’ infield and will each be significant threats with their bats. Newsome hosts Gaither to open play on Tuesday.

8. Sumner, 16-6


It’s ironic that in a year where the Stingrays set a program record in wins for the third consecutive season, they missed the region playoffs for the first time in program history. That can be attributed to a gauntlet of a district – and region – that saw their season end in the Class 7A-District 7 play-in game to Riverview. Sumner keeps improving and its next test is to see how it will respond to graduating a large group of seniors for the first time in program history.


Aliyanis Stubbs served as the No. 2 pitcher for the Stingrays as a freshman and should see her role increase after the graduation of Alyssa Vallad. Jaelyn Joiner returns as Sumner’s leading hitter with Stubbs closely behind her and from there, there’s some unknowns. Karlee Salisbury had a tremendous freshman season and the Stingrays hope they can get a junior season that’s close to the level of production she put up then. They’ll have a tough task to start the year with when Steinbrenner makes the trip down on Tuesday night.


Also receiving votes:


Sickles, 16-12: Former East Lake assistant coach Chris Patterson takes over and the Gryphons still have lots of talent, even after graduating DaNia Brooks, headlined by Briana Browder, Barry signee Shelby Prevatte and Valdosta State signee Chloe Eichelberger.


Riverview, 15-11: The Sharks come off their best season since 2016 and will have to replace ace Madison Carney in the circle. At the plate, Eastern Florida State College signee Natalia Leon is the big bat in the order with one of the county’s best speedy slappers in Aiyana Hicks at the top of the lineup.


Durant, 9-14-1: King and Florida A&M alumna Shontell Cliatt takes over a program that has the talent to be considered a sleeping giant in Hillsborough. College of Charleston signee Bricelyn Bedenbaugh and Tampa commit Lennox Ullrich will lead the Cougars this season.


Wharton, 9-11: Another program with a new head coach got some preseason shine, as Wesley Chapel product Breana Delgado takes over the program to try and help the Wildcats secure their first winning season since 2019.


Plant City, 13-10: It’s been good to see the Raiders put a productive season together after a few rebuilding years. Watch for the Gibbs duo, Kayleigh and Kyleigh, as Plant City looks to make some noise in the same district as the defending 6A State Champions, Bartow.


East Bay, 12-15: Florida Gulf Coast signee Elana Roush looked like her normal self when she threw this preseason, a huge development for the Indians. Aisha Duncan, Kamiira Austin and Jensen Nelson will all be key pieces to the puzzle this season.


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