After two weeks of games, most county teams were slated to start their Orange Belt Conference schedule last week before mother nature stepped in – raining out eight games including the OBC opener for five teams.
This year’s conference race could be a wide open affair with at least four teams having a chance to contend for the title. In addition to the OBC title, teams will be trying to build a resume that will affect their district seeding and hopeful advancement to the state playoffs.
Osceola’s Miranda Watford’s team is off to a 2-2 start but saw it OBC opener with Celebration postponed by Thursday’s rain. Osceola is in somewhat of a rebuilding year after graduating four senior starters off of last year’s 16-10 district champion team.
Still the Kowboys return some talent, including juniors Nayeli Hernandez (.508 BA, 15 RBI) and Gabriela Avila (Jr., .403, 25 RBI). They also return two pitchers in Alyssa Miranda and Alexis Miranda, who combined for 10 of their 16 wins last year. Veronica Fernandez and Keanna Ducasse are first-year starters who could play a key role Osceola’s fortunes this year.
Watford believes that although her team lost some key players to graduation, they can still compete for OBC and District titles. “We have some a group of solid returning players and behind the leadership of senior pitcher Alyssa Miranda, I believe this team will grow and come together as the season progresses. We have a dedicated, focused group that is not afraid to put in the work.”
After a tough 5-12 season, Harmony head coach Kristi Mindrup believes the Longhorns will be a much- improved club this year. “The team has a new chemistry and a new fire under them,” she said. “We have worked hard in the weight room and on the field in the offseason and have both the talent and desire to compete for the OBC Championship.”
The early results have been good, as Harmony is off to a 3-1 start – but saw its Thursday OBC opener with Tohopekaliga postponed by rain. The team’s only loss has been to 7A Lake Nona. Harmony’s top returning hitters include Dominica Kohurt (Jr., .229, 7 RBI) and Ireland Sibitt (Jr., .225, 5 RBI); while the Longhorns return a trio of experienced pitchers in Brinley Cowert (Sr., 2-2, 3.50 ERA, 36
IP, 13K), Amanda Whalen (Jr., 0-4, 5.13 ERA, 24 IP, 10 K), Ireland Sibitt (Jr., 2-3, 2.66 ERA, 29 IP, 20K). Look for transfers Tori Moore, Aurielle Reavis and Angelica Castro to factor into the Harmony lineup; as should freshman pitcher Lindsay Green.
A program that has struggled to be relevant since the school opened, Liberty appeared headed for big things in 2020 when they got off to a 6-0 start before Covid cancelled the season and ruined things for what appeared to be the best team in school history. Despite losing some top players from that team, Liberty proved they were not going to be one-hit wonders when they established a school record for wins in a 19-5 season in 2020.
Rich Colom’s team returns some outstanding hitters in Jehna Morales (Sr., .536. 39 R, 39 RBI, 9 HR), Kayleen DeJesus (Sr., .438, 28 RBI, 12 2B), and Blanca Elaraj (So., .394, 27 R, 21 RBI); and a top pitcher in Abagail Esparza (So., 4-0, 0.56 ERA, 25 IP, 20 K).
Liberty got off to a 3-2 start this season behind the hitting of Morales, who has been near impossible to get out with a .750 batting average and an .833 on-base percentage through three games.
Long a challenger for district and OBC titles, St. Cloud fell on hard times the last two years – going 0-6 in the Covid shortened 2020 season and posting a losing record last season at 10-16. Look for veteran coach Ray Whobrey to lead the Lady Bulldogs out of that funk this year as he returns a nice mix of veteran players and some talented newcomers.
Top returning hitters include Olivia LaMeau (Jr., .409, 27 R, 19 RBI), Delaney Carnell (Sr., .311, 23 RBI, 8 HR), Hannah Nasco (Sr., 30 RBI, 8 HR), with both Nasco and Carnell posing long-ball threats. After an uneven sophomore season where she went 3-5 with a 7.51 ERA, Kiley Holland has looked good in the preseason and early going as St. Cloud has raced out to a 3-1 record. “We have a good combination of players this year capable of going deep, hitting for average and we have some speed on the bases,” Whobrey said. “We are excited to see what the season will bring this year especially how hard this group is working.” Coach Anysa Robles believes Celebration may field one of their better teams in school history this year.
“The incoming freshmen have really proven themselves and will be an integral part of our team,” Robles said. “With Emily Cocks leading us on the mound for her senior year and Valeria Martinez providing solid defense and a consistent bat, we should be vastly improved over our 6-9 season last year and could have one of our best teams yet.”
Celebration, 2-1 overall, is an early leader in the OBC race with a 2-0 record with wins over Tohopekaliga and Poinciana. Freshman Kacey Pagan has proven to be a major factor in the Storm lineup, hitting .750 in the early going; while another relative newcomer Carolina McAuley was batting .600 with five RBI and four runs scored in the first three games. Martinez, another sophomore, was hitting .500.
Tohopekaliga Coach Chantal Schuster says 2022 will be a learning experience for her young team. “One of the goals that we are working towards this season is more communication on the field. Our focus is to get them to understand that they must communicate and talk to each other every pitch, every play, and all game long to ensure that everyone is on the same page,” she said.
The Tigers are winless in four games this season. Poinciana is 2-4 (1-1 OBC) and Gateway is 1-1 in the early going. Underclassmen were leading the way for Poinciana, as juniors Cameran Sweat and Briana Montalvo were hitting .625 and .500 respectively through five games; while Sophomore Alanys Negron was batting .538.