LAKEWOOD RANCH — Long after the sun has set, casting a deep dark shadow on the softball fields at Lakewood Ranch High School, a group of girls sit huddled together in the outfield.
Fits of laughter pierce through the darkness as the girls talk and joke. A dim light slowly begins to seep onto the darkened field. Within a matter of minutes, the field is fully illuminated, springing the girls to life.
The girls race back and forth sliding across the outfield before grabbing a handful of softballs for a friendly game of catch. Minutes later, the girls are ready to move on to their next task, whether it be batting, fielding, pitching or simply learning a new skill to improve their game.
The routine has become a way of life for the 12 girls on the Suncoast Storm 10U softball team, who have been playing softball together since they were 8 years old.
“We’ve got a great group of girls who absolutely love to play softball,” Suncoast Storm coach T.J. Goelz said. “They have an absolute thirst for the game, and they want to keep learning and getting better. They really want to know how to play the game and they respect the game.”
Last weekend, the girls played their final 10U game at the NSA State Tournament in Bartow. The girls finished 2-1-1, tying one of the top teams in the state in the Orlando Aftershock 0-0. The team entered the 30-team tournament as the No. 6 seed but fell 4-2 in their opening round game Dec. 13, ending the girls’ state title hopes prematurely.
Now with their 10U season officially behind them, the girls will prepare to begin their fourth year playing softball together when they move up to 12U as a team in January — a move the girls are less apprehensive about knowing they’ll still be playing together.
“It’s kind of nerve-wracking, but we’ve played up in rec ball so I feel like it’s all going to be OK,” 11-year-old Ali Yawn said. “We’ll get through it together because no matter what, everyone is always there for each other.”
The girls began playing recreational softball together and decided to form a travel ball team. The team formed when the majority of the girls were 8 years old.
Since then, the girls have developed a unique chemistry few teams enjoy.
“This team is very trustworthy,” 11-year-old Hannah Neu said. “It’s nice knowing that if you throw the ball, your teammate will be there to stop it even if it’s a bad throw.”
“It’s just nice knowing that when we come out here we’re all going to play together equally and have fun,” Yawn said. “We’re one big, great softball playing family.”
After moving up to 10U, the girls began practicing two to three times a week as a team with many of the players practicing an additional two to three days on their own.
The girls’ hard work and dedication to the sport has paid off for the team, which had posted a 60-26 record prior to this past weekend’s tournaments. This year alone, the girls won five tournaments and finished second in seven others.
“They’re pretty good, and they always compete at the highest level,” Goelz said.
The girls compete in both the spring season, which runs from February to July, and the fall season, which runs from September to December, taking a break in between to play rec ball or focus on other activities.
“They don’t ever want to take a break, but when they do come back they miss it,” Goelz said. “I don’t want them to get burnt out. I want them to be the best they’re ever going to be at 14, 16 and 17.”
Since returning from their summer break in August, the girls have competed in nine tournaments, reaching the championship game in every tournament and finishing first in three of the tournaments.
The Suncoast Storm 10U team has traveled to Georgia and across the state of Florida for tournaments, looking to play the top teams wherever they go.
“It’s about playing all new teams,” Yawn said. “I love playing new teams and seeing how they hit and play.”
The girls will have a host of new teams to face next year when they begin their 12U spring travel ball season. But although the competition will intensify as the players get older, Goelz is confident the girls will adjust to playing at the next level.
“I don’t think they’re going to miss a beat,” Goelz said. “I’ll think they’ll be ready to compete at the gold level.”
Contact Jen Blanco at firstname.lastname@example.org.