In east and central Pasco County, softball programs such as Academy at the Lakes, Land O’ Lakes, and Sunlake have garnered much of the attention of late.
And, rightly so.
As of March 25, there’s just a single loss combined among the three schools—Sunlake suffered its lone loss to Land O’ Lakes on March 2— and each team ranks among the state’s top 20 or so softball programs.
But, there’s another local program on the rise — quickly proving itself as a force in the Tampa Bay region.
The Cypress Creek Middle High Coyotes sit at 9-4 overall and 6-2 in district play.
The team entered spring break on a four-game winning streak.
Instant success hasn’t come without adversity, however.
A first-year program with no seniors, the Coyotes were forced to play much of their pre-spring break schedule on the road because the team’s new softball field wasn’t game-ready until a week ago.
Ongoing maintenance also prevented the upstart Coyotes from participating in fall practices together; instead many were forced to train with their respective travel squads up through January, until they were able to practice with Coyotes coaches.
The team also suffered an unexpected depth setback before the season began, forcing a freshman into action and reducing the varsity roster to just 10 regulars.
Outfielder Cassidy Middleton, a .308 hitter as a sophomore last season at Wesley Chapel High School, tore her ACL while playing on the Cypress Creek girls basketball team. She’s been replaced in the lineup by Emma Coon, who’s batting .381 through 46 plate appearances as the team’s lone freshman.
Challenges aside, Cypress Creek sits just a game back of Nature Coast Tech for second place in the District 7-5A standings; each are chasing division-leading Hernando High (10-2 overall, 8-0 districts).
First-year head coach Mike Peterson credited the group’s effort, teamwork, and perseverance for contributing to the team’s strong start.
“They’re working hard in practice, knowing it’s not where we start, it’s where we end. They’re all on the same page. There’s nothing but fight in the girls, which is nice,” Peterson said.
Despite its thin roster, Cypress Creek is heavy on talent.
Opponents facing them quickly discover that the Coyotes feature some of the hottest bats in the region.
The team is batting a combined .403 and averaging about 10 runs per game.
The most potent of the bunch is junior catcher Neely Peterson, the head coach’s daughter and one of the team’s many transfers from Wesley Chapel.
A Colorado State University commit, Peterson sports a whopping .636 average with four home runs, 10 doubles and 29 RBIs — all team highs. Her batting average is second in all of Pasco, trailing only River Ridge’s Hailey Smith (.708).
The standout catcher said she’s become more comfortable and relaxed at the plate, after batting .443 as a sophomore and .290 as a freshman, respectively.
Becoming more relaxed, at the plate
“As I grow older, the less pressure I put on myself the better that I’ll do, because I know that my freshman year, I was really tense to like, ‘I need to make a statement,’ but now I just let my play speak for me,” Neely Peterson said.
Other Coyotes batting over .400 include sophomore first baseman Anna Margetis (.485) and junior infielders Payton Hudson (.471) and Jasmine Jackson (.429).
Juniors Jordan Rosenberg (.382) and Ashley Nickisher (.333, two home runs) join Coon as players hitting above .300.
That menacing offensive skill has helped gain early, sizable leads in road games, putting stress on home teams by making them play catch-up the rest of the way.
Employing that score early-score often strategy, the team has come to embrace road games, Neely Peterson said.
“We almost didn’t like playing at home because when you’re on the road you get to hit first so we like putting up those runs, so we kind of got acclimated to playing on the road. But, we like playing here (at home), obviously,” Neely Peterson said.
A prime example came in a recent 16-0 road victory against Fivay High School. The Coyotes scored 10 runs in the first inning and six in the second to mercy rule the host Falcons in three innings.
“When you’re able to score the first runs in the first inning you get that confidence of, ‘Oh, we’ve got this,’ whereas, at home, you have to hold them first and then go,” Nickisher said.
“Playing games on the road, you really have to get your mind set because you’re going into their house. And, you want to show what you have,” Margetis said.
Cypress Creek’s pitching—somewhat of a question mark entering the season—has also proven resourceful.
Junior Avery Lee—a Wiregrass Ranch High transfer—has a 2.47 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 68 innings pitched.
“We have a solid foundation. Avery’s come in and has given us solid innings, solid outings, worked on her mental toughness; she’s been terrific,” Mike Peterson said.
Sticking together is key to success
While the team prides itself on strong hitting and crafty pitching, the Coyotes head coach stressed improvements must be made on the defensive end in order to hang against better competition. The team has committed 23 errors this season.
“I have no doubt that we can hit with any team. It’s just we get a couple of mental lapses in the field that have hurt us in a couple of games. We clean that up, we’ll be fine,” Mike Peterson explained.
“I tell them, ‘There’s nothing you guys can’t accomplish if you stick together as a team, play as a team, ” he added.
With their cohesiveness and unwavering attitude, players are confident the team can make some noise come playoff time in late April.
Many know the feeling because they were members of last year’s Wesley Chapel varsity squad that experienced its first winning season and playoff appearance in program history. That team went 19-7 and advanced to the regional semifinals.
“We work together and we trust each other…and we’re just able to work together and have each other’s back,” Nickisher said, acknowledging she was initially upset to leave Wesley Chapel.
“Everyone on this team wants to help each other, no matter if we’re doing good or not,” she added.
“I think we’re having a lot of fun with it, and that’s a big part,” Neely Peterson said. “I think that our mindset really is to win and, if we don’t, we’ll make it difficult for the other team to beat us. I think we’re all really competitive in the sense that we really want to win. We’ve had some tough losses, but we know that we’re going to play them again — teams like Hernando and Nature Coast — so we get a second chance so that’s good.”
Margetis added: “These games—they matter—but when districts come around, I feel like we’ll dig deep and find out what we really have to do to beat the opponents.”
School pride also is at stake.
Other boys and girls sports programs at Cypress Creek have mainly struggled in their first year, but the softball team is bucking that trend.
“It’s just wanting to be the team…that everybody can look to and say, ‘Hey, they’re doing something right.’” Neely Peterson said.
Cypress Creek Coyotes varsity softball roster
- Alexis Aponte, outfielder, sophomore
- Emma Coon, outfielder, freshman
- Payton Hudson, middle infielder junior
- Jasmine Jackson, middle infielder, junior
- Avery Lee, pitcher, junior
- Anna Margetis, first baseman, sophomore
- Cassidy Middleton, outfielder, junior
- Paige Mulford, outfielder, junior
- Ashley Nickisher, third baseman, junior
- Neely Peterson, catcher, junior
- Jordan Rosenberg, utility/pitcher, junior
District 7-5A Standings (as of March 25)
- Hernando — (10-2 overall, 8-0 district)
- Nature Coast Tech — (9-5 overall, 7-1 district)
- Cypress Creek — (9-4 overall, 6-2 district)
- Hudson — (6-7 overall, 2-3 district)
- Gulf — (3-9 overall, 2-5 district)
- Central — (2-9 overall, 2-6 district)
- Fivay — (0-12 overall, 0-6 district
- Ridgewood — (1-13 overall, 0-7 district)
Published March 28, 2018