With the long-standing issue in high school softball of some states beginning play in the middle of February and others not starting until late March or even early April in the case of Michigan, the most difficult aspect of compiling a national ranking maybe isn’t all the evaluations of top teams from the previous season.
How to time it when to do the preseason list -- or even calling it a preseason list at all -- is always hard.
Since some teams have already begun to play a few games, one can’t ignore it when a team that’s pegged to be quite high in the first run-through has already lost. Examples of that for this year would be Fairhope of Alabama and Santiago of Corona, Calif.
The preseason No. 1 team this year, Lakewood Ranch of Bradenton, Fla., is playing its first game on the same day that the Extra Elite Eighty is being released. We don’t expect that head coach T.J. Goelz’s team is going to lose right out of the gates to Charlotte (Punta Gorda, Fla.) High, but you never know.
Lakewood Ranch had a chance to be No. 1 in last year’s final rankings, but lost in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 national rankings matchup to Winter Springs for the Class 8A Florida championship. Winter Springs finished 31-0 and was named the Extra Elite Eighty national champ.
Winter Springs still has Ole Miss-bound pitcher/hitter Aynslie Furbush plus some other strong returnees, but doesn’t quite have the more overwhelming number of returning starters that Lakewood Ranch can trot out onto the field. Furbush went 16-0 last season with a 1.10 ERA and she hit 12 homers with 71 RBI. We’re still starting out the Bears No. 3 in the nation, just not higher than the Mustangs.
There are 10 players with D1 college commitments at Lakewood Ranch, led by senior INF Avery Goelz, the coach’s daughter who batted. 543 last season with nine homers and 47 RBI and has signed with Florida.. She also is a three-time Florida Offensive Player of the Year winner. Senior Claire Davidson (Duke) leads a deep pitching staff as she went 10-0 with a 0.56 ERA along with senior C McKenzie Clark (.398, 40 runs) and senior INF Kali Reis (.358, 6 HRs). Davidson also batted .439 last season with 13 homers and 47 RBI. Clark, nicknamed “Pie,” will play next at Clemson. Reis is also going to Florida with Goelz.
More From Florida
One of the trickiest teams to rank last year and will be again is Trenton of Florida.
The team is only Class 1A in the Florida High School Athletic Association classifications, but was unbeaten last year and did have some wins against teams from much higher divisions, including Oakleaf of Orange Park (one of the state’s very best programs in recent years). Oakleaf was No. 1 in the Miracle Sports Class 7A preseason rankings and still has some top players, especially OF Katie Kistler (Florida).
But Trenton is bringing back just about its entire team and is going to play Oakleaf again plus 2019 Class 4A state champ Trinity Christian and others. If the Tigers weren’t playing teams like that and hadn’t beaten Oakleaf last year, they wouldn’t be as high as we decided to start them out this season. Their top returnee is junior P Darian Ingram, who went 23-0 in the circle as a sophomore with 0.40 ERA.
Changes Coming In California
Starting next season, the California Interscholastic Federation will begin regional playoffs in Northern and Southern California in softball with the possibility of adding state championships later on.
This may not mean much in a season in which all of the top teams in Southern California are all in the CIF Southern Section, but if it was a season like two years ago when there were nationally ranked teams in the CIF San Diego Section and in the CIFSS then those teams would be playing each other after the section playoffs are completed.
And for a team like Foothill of Pleasanton, which didn’t have much competition last season in the CIF North Coast Section, entering a NorCal regional playoff bracket would mean potential matchups against section champions from the Central Coast, Sac-Joaquin or even Central sections.
None of that will be until next season, though, so for this year it’s still the same dilemma of where to start a team like Foothill, which is coming off of a 28-0 season and still has one of the nation’s top batterymates in pitcher Nicole May (Oklahoma) and catcher Courtney Beaudin (UCLA). Since the Falcons still aren’t facing any teams from outside of Northern California (based on their published schedule), we tend to start them out a little lower in both the state and national rankings because we know all of the top teams from the CIF Southern Section will be playing each other and often more than once.
In the CIF-SS this year, Norco is again the favorite and should make another run at the mythical national title. The Cougars arguably should have gotten it last season, but Winter Springs did beat Lakewood Ranch at the end of the season in Florida and didn’t lose a single game. Head coach Rick Robinson does lose a healthy chunk of the run producers from last year’s lineup, including Ms. Softball State Player of the Year Kinzie Hansen (now at Oklahoma). But still there at Norco is senior pitcher/hitter/athlete Sarah Willis. The Washington-bound Willis went 22-1 with a 0.82 ERA last season while at the plate she hit .350 with four homers and 20 RBI. The Cougars also have Oregon-bound Stevie Hansen (9-0, 0.13).
Some of the top competition Norco will face also will come from nearby in the Inland Empire region of the section. Great Oak of Temecula, the runner-up to the Cougars in the CIFSS D1 playoffs last season, returns a monster lineup including Oklahoma-bound INF Quincee Lilio and power-hitting INF Ramsey Suarez (UCLA). Chino Hills also is loaded with returning strength in the field, at the plate and in the circle. Plus, although Norco’s league rival Santiago of Corona has already lost a game this season, the Sharks also have an impressive group of returning players.
Twists & Turns In Texas
It could be more of a wide-open season in the Lone Star State.
Many of the top teams from last season, especially defending Class 6A state champ Katy, all lost significant players (and a lot of pitching) so it’s hard to know how many of them will be this season.
Barbers Hill is a strong Class 5A program that went 39-5 last season and does have a lot back both in terms of pitching and with its lineup. The Eagles should be led by senior UTL Sophia Simpson (Texas), junior P Samantha Landry (Louisiana) and senior INF Jessica Mullins (Texas State).
A top 20 team from last season in the Dallas metroplex, Forney, also has the combination of returning pitching and hitting strength that is attractive for preseason rankings. Among those back for the Jackrabbits is Kansas-bound Savanna DesRochers, who went 25-3 as a pitcher last season and who also drove in 71 runs with 13 homers. Forney also still has INF Trinity Cannon (Texas A&M) who had 72 RBI and 18 homers last season.
Perennial power Keller actually has the most impressive list of returning players in its lineup, but will have to rebuild its pitching staff. All of Keller’s infielders will be playing at D1 colleges: 1B Tessa Galipeau (Syracuse), 2B Brooke Davis (UAB), SS Alexa Langeliers (Louisiana Lafayette) and 3B Riley Love (Texas Tech).
Others from around the nation
* The highest-ranked team to start this season in the Extra Elite 80 from outside of the power states of California, Florida and Texas is a Male of Louisville (Ky.) squad that was No. 7 in last season’s final rankings. The Bulldogs made history with their unbeaten 2019 season and have most of their major pieces back. P Kelsie Houchens had a 0.68 ERA to go with an 18-0 record, junior Madison McCoy ripped eight homers with 53 hits and batted .457 while Jaelyn Sanders hit 12 homers and had a 10-0 pitching record (0.91 ERA).
* In Arizona, which in some years looks like a power state much like the big three, defending Class 6A champ O’Connor and perennial power Pinnacle both look strong again. Pinnacle won twice in earlier games between the two last season until the Eagles got the 6-4 win in the state final. LSU-bound Morgan Smith is still at Pinnacle with her pitching and hitting excellence, while O’Connor has junior INF Rylee Holtorf (Washington) and sophomore C Jocelyn Erickson (Oklahoma). Danielle Wilson also is back at O’Connor with a 13-0 record and 2.08 ERA from last season.
--- Mark Tennis
Here are 2020 Extra Elite Eighty Preseason High School Softball Teams
(Listed with win-loss records from 2019 season)
1. Lakewood Ranch (Bradenton, Fla.) 30-1
2. Norco (Norco, Calif.) 31-1
3. Winter Springs (Winter Springs, Fla.) 31-0
4. Great Oak (Temecula, Calif.) 26-4-1
5. Barbers Hill (Mt. Belvieu, Texas) 39-5
6. Chino Hills (Chino Hills, Calif.) 27-5
7. Foothill (Pleasanton, Calif.) 28-0
8. Forney (Forney, Texas) 29-4
9. Male (Louisville, Ky.) 39-0
10. Pinnacle (Phoenix, Ariz.) 25-4