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Sarasota High softball gets 'scrappy' in fast start

Building off their 2022 season, the Sailors are 6-1 and have shown an ability to win multiple ways.

Sarasota High's Ryleigh Bennett has been the team's workhorse.
Sarasota High's Ryleigh Bennett has been the team's workhorse.
Courtesy photo
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Some sports teams shy away from using terms like "scrappy."

While not overtly negative, the word implies that the team in question will do —perhaps has to do — anything it takes to win. It carries the connotation of a hard-working group, but also one that is maximizing all the talent at its disposal to win. It is not a term typically applied to favorites, or teams that win blowout after blowout; when those teams play a similar way, they get descriptors like "tenacious" or "relentless." 

The Sarasota High softball team, led by Coach Heather Mushrush, doesn't mind those connotations of "scrappy," and in fact embraces the term for itself. In the Sailors' minds, a gut-check win is as good as any other. They all count the same, after all. 

"To me, if you're someone who is scrappy, that means you're never out of a fight, even into the late rounds," Mushrush said. "That's who we have been. We don't give up." 

The Sailors, coming off a 17-8 season in 2022, lost only three seniors to graduation this offseason and entered 2023 with expectations of building off last season. Through seven games, the team looks to have succeeded. The Sailors are 6-1 and have showcased a penchant for bringing home wins however they can. 

Sometimes Sarasota can put together an offensive barrage, like it did March 2 in a 14-2 win over Riverview High. Other times, the Sailors lean on workhorse senior pitcher Ryleigh Bennett, who holds a 1.20 ERA through 40.2 innings. And sometimes, the team has to rely on its mental toughness, like when the Sailors blew a 4-0 lead against North Port High, but stopped the Bobcats' rally at 4-4 and got a late run of their own, on a walk-off hit by sophomore Brooke Bendel, to win 5-4. 

The Sailors have been honing their mental strength for a long time in preparation for the season's long journey. 

"We have a saying on this team," Bendel said. "It is SAIL: sacrifice, accountability, integrity and leadership. We try to have all of those things every game, and I feel like we've done a good job of that so far." 

The Sailors volunteer at places like the Miracle League of Manasota.
Courtesy photo

Mushrush said she believes the team's scorching start has come from playing as a complete unit. After games, Mushrush said, the Sailors will stand in a circle and go over what just happened, as most teams do. What's different this season is the willingness of the players to shout out their teammates for strong play, unprompted. Then those teammates will respond with a shoutout to someone else, and the circle of support continues.

The team's chemistry has been building for years. Bendel said the majority of the team's players have known each other for a long time, and their bond has only increased. Mushrush said the team has volunteered with the Miracle League of Manasota, which provides opportunities for children with disabilities to play baseball, to help with that bond, plus has held fun get-togethers like a "camping trip" at a coach's house. Bendel said the camping trip was used to play neighborhood games like manhunt and wiffle ball. It all circles back to being the most supportive team the Sailors can be. 

Sarasota High's Sommer Speers (21) races home for a run.
Courtesy photo

But on-field talent helps, too. Bendel is hitting .429 with two doubles, two home runs and a team-leading 12 RBIs. Senior Jaydan Baker, who March 9 announced her intentions to enter the Fire Academy upon gradation, is hitting .474 with two doubles. Sophomore Sommer Speers and junior Abbey Johns both have a double and two triples. And anchoring the other side of the game is Bennett, who as a senior has lowered her ERA by 1.44 runs per game from 2022 as of March 14. 

Bennett said she spent the last year working on her pitch accuracy, but also changing her mindset on the mound. 

"I'm not trying to be perfect anymore," Bennett said. "I'm putting trust in my teammates to make plays behind me and put up runs. Last year, when I started to struggle is when I tried to strike everybody out instead of letting them put the ball in play. It led to a lot of walks and a lot of pitching errors. This year (with the new mindset), it has helped me throw more strikes and we've been more productive as a team." 

In some ways, the Sailors are still the underdogs. They play in a district with two-time defending state champion Lakewood Ranch High (7-3) as well as Venice High, who has started this season 5-1. Getting as deep into the postseason as the team dreams will not be an easy task. 

The good news for the Sailors? They're used to working hard. 

"Last year was a growing year," Mushrush said. "This year, we're starting to come into our own. We're starting to understand who we are as a team. We want to be a family. If you can get that aspect of it, you're golden. They have all the talent, they just have to produce it in a way where we're fighting for each other, and I think we have started to do that." 



Ryan Kohn

Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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