BRADEN RIVER — Every year, there are two games on the schedule senior catcher Lauren Powell considers must-win games.
They may not count toward the district standings or help the Lady Pirates delve deeper into the regional tournament, but for Powell and the rest of her Braden River High teammates these two games tend to carry the most weight.
And this year is no different. The Lady Pirates are already anticipating their Feb. 19 and March 23 games with rival Lakewood Ranch. Only this season, the stakes are entirely different because the two teams now find themselves in the same district.
“It means a lot more,” Powell said. “It’s not just about bragging rights anymore.”
Braden River is coming off an undefeated district season in which the Lady Pirates won their second-consecutive district championship and advanced to the regional quarterfinals.
“I think we did really well last year,” Powell said. “We all played together as a team and while we didn’t make it as far as we wanted to we still had a really good season.”
Senior pitcher Trisha Zuknick agreed.
“Last year, the team as a whole was really determined and we all wanted it,” she said.
This season, the Lady Pirates will face a new district, which includes Lakewood, Palmetto, Bayshore, Seminole Osceloa, St. Pete Lakewood and Dixie Hollins. The new district should provide Braden River with additional competition — something the Lady Pirates haven’t seen in years past.
“We’re going to have some different competition this year, and it should be a very (intense) and competitive district season,” Braden River coach Doug Powell said. “This year, our schedule has a much higher level of competition, but I think we’ll be every bit as good.”
The Lady Pirates could face stiff competition in Lakewood and Osceola as well as non-district opponents Venice and Manatee. But the unfamiliarity of the district doesn’t intimidate the Lady Pirates.
“It’ll be exciting to play new teams,” Lauren Powell said. “Hopefully, we’ll do better than last year. We’ve got a really good team this year, and hopefully we can go far.”
Braden River lost four seniors from last season’s squad, but the Lady Pirates have gained four talented freshmen — Courtney Mirabella, Ashley Allard, Hannah Loyer and Jessica Caderette — who are expected to have a positive impact on the team.
“They’re very talented players and they contributed a lot right from day one,” Doug Powell said.
Leading the way for the Lady Pirates this season will be Lauren Powell and Zuknick and fellow seniors Kaycee Wells, Jessica Gore and Amber McCullock, who came out for the team for the first time following Braden River’s soccer season.
Braden River will play in the Palmetto Preseason Tournament at 5 p.m., tomorrow, before hosting Venice Feb. 9.
“I look for big things from them this year, and I think we’ll be even better than last year,” Doug Powell said.
It was the one game Lakewood Ranch thought it should have won.
Instead, the girls softball team found itself on the outside looking in, falling to Venice 2-1 in the Class 5A-District 12 semifinals.
For the past nine months the Lady Mustangs have been trying to put last year’s disappointing finish behind them.
And now with a new season and district upon them, Lakewood is hoping this will be its year.
“Last year, we had a pretty good season, but it ended kind of disappointingly,” senior shortstop and co-captain Rachel Slowik said. “I think we’ll do better than our outcome last year if we all work together and help each other out.
“We all want the best for each other, so I think we’ll all do well,” she said.
The Lady Mustangs return the majority of their starting lineup, having lost only one player to graduation. Lakewood will rely heavily on Slowik, her twin sister, Becca, and fellow senior Corey Hanewich.
Joining Lakewood’s starting lineup this spring will be freshmen Jenn Trotter (infield) and Taylor Newton (first base and outfield).
Similar to Braden River, the Lady Mustangs don’t know what to expect from their new district. However, Lakewood expects to battle Braden River and Seminole Osceola for the top seed in the district.
“I’m excited,” Rachel Slowik said of playing in a new district. “I think it’s going to be a good district. I’m not really sure about certain teams being more or less challenging, but I would say Braden River is the one (team) that’s our biggest competition for district.”
Although, Lakewood coach Joe Dowling expects the Lady Mustangs to be under even more pressure this season, since they’ll only be playing half of the teams in their new district once.
“We’re trying to get them to work for a purpose,” Dowling said. “They need to go out and be prepared for every game. This season we’re looking at one game at a time and just focusing on that.
“I’m looking for great things out of this team,” he added. “We’re going to be strong all the way around, and our defense is phenomenal this year.”
Lakewood will join Braden River in the Palmetto Preseason Tournament Feb. 5 before traveling to Manatee Feb. 9.
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].