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Steinbrenner’s eyes for Clermont grow wider in 2024


Steinbrenner P Lilly Patton delivers a pitch during a scrimmage on Jan. 31, 2024.

LUTZ – It’s been nearly a decade since the Steinbrenner Warriors’ last ‘losing’ season.

 

Losing is in quotes because that’s not the right term for it. They went 14-14 that season, and your searches for a true losing season would come up empty since there hasn’t been one since the program opened up in 2009. There aren’t a lot of programs in the area that can boast that claim.

 

Drive north on the Suncoast Parkway and look to your right once you pass the Lutz Lake Fern exit. Past the baseball field, you’ll see a softball field that has housed a program that’s been the model of consistency in recent memory.

 

But if you ask anyone that calls that facility home, they’ll tell you that it’s time to get over the hump.

 

Steinbrenner’s averaged a 19-6 record since 2015 (excluding the COVID season). In all but one of those seasons – the first year of that run - the Warriors haven’t been able to get past the second round of the FHSAA Regional Playoffs. They had one of their best opportunities to do so last year but ran into a senior-laden, white-hot Plant team that turned out to be a run away from winning a state championship in the season’s final game.

 

The obstacles have been plentiful over the years. Long-time assistant coach Ron Scios was there when Plant City’s Ashley Blessin dashed the Warriors’ playoff hopes for not one, not two, but three seasons. Then came the emergence of two-time state champion Lakewood Ranch, which derailed the 2022 playoff run.

 

As camp opened this spring, the mantra turned to, ‘Win it in ’24.’

 

“If we’re locked in, we’ll be good,” said senior pitcher Saige Sampson.

 

For the first time since the softball world picked itself up from the coronavirus pandemic, it feels there is no true favorite in Florida’s largest classification. Lakewood Ranch isn’t the powerhouse it once was, and Spanish River (Boca Raton) proved that anyone can beat anyone on any given day when its upset of nationally ranked Lake Brantley (Altamonte Springs) sent shockwaves through the state’s softball scene.

 

Does that open the door for Steinbrenner? Certainly. The Warriors are talented with Arizona State signee Lily Holtje leading the charge at the dish, however, she believes that talent isn’t the only thing standing between them and a state tournament appearance.

 

“I think it’s team culture. That’s huge, especially in women’s sports,” she said. “If we have drama going into big games, especially at the end of a season, we’re going to tear each other apart.”

 

It’s a topic that many teams cite as the reason why their goals aren’t achieved at the end of a season – after nine months of school and being around their teammates, there’s a mental toll that can cause a serious divide in a softball locker room, especially at the high school age.

 

“I think for some people, there is,” Holtje said. “For me, I’m at the gym and then at practice. I don’t go to in-person school, I’m online. Being here is the best part of my day. I love to be around everybody.”

 

Warriors head coach Jason Gordon called this group the most cohesive he’s seen since taking over. His senior leaders agreed and understood that it starts with them.

 

“All the seniors are all easy-going and friendly people. It really helps set the tone,” Holtje added. “Everybody else molds along the way.”

 

If Steinbrenner’s team culture is strong, then the talent projects to carry it the rest of the way. The Warriors have one of the sturdiest pitching staffs in Hillsborough County between Sampson and sophomore Lilly Patton – after Sampson’s myriad of ailments in 2023, the Eckerd College signee is back at 100% heading into the year, a huge boost. Patton’s emergence earned her a Hillsborough County Breakout Player of the Year nod and her development this offseason should allow Steinbrenner to have a pair of aces up its sleeve.

 

Add in sophomore Madi Adams (a transfer from New York) with freshman Ava Driscoll and there’s a quartet of quality arms that Gordon can call on.

 

“It doesn’t feel like there’s so much pressure on me,” Sampson said. “They have my back, if I go downhill, someone’s going to step in there. My freshman year, I know I was the one that wanted the ball, and I know they’re kind of feeling like that and when their opportunities come up, I know they’ve got it.”

 

When Steinbrenner opens at Sumner on Feb. 20, something will be significantly different when they start the top of the first: the Warriors won’t trot out a bona-fide leadoff hitter. Along with winning, that’s been a consistent piece of the equation. Emily Chiarella (now at Florida Gulf Coast) and Makenzie Reynolds (now at Tampa) helped their side start a lot of games up 1-0 over the past five years. It’s strange to even consider that spot is in flux.

 

“I think there are a few,” Holtje said about who could take the spot.

 

Berkeley Demetter led the Warriors in stolen bases a year ago and could be in consideration, as will Western Carolina commit Emma Kindle. Or, Gordon elects to go with the Kyle Schwarber strategy by penciling in Holtje (who was second in the county in home runs) on the top spot of the lineup card. Schwarber was a former catcher, so perhaps it’s only right for the Warriors to do the same with theirs.

 

Hey, it helped the Phillies reach the World Series in 2022 and the NLCS in 2023. Maybe the Warriors can get the same magic in that pesky region semifinal. First, they’ve got to get there again.

 

“I think we’ve gotten too antsy in that we know we have a good team, that we’re stacked. We’ve got to take it down to the basics. We have to take it game-by-game. We’re always like, ‘we’re going to state.’ You’ve got to get to regionals first, you’ve got to get to districts first,” Sampson said. “We’ve got to win that first.”

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