Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

SOFTBALL PREVIEW; Quartet Aims for Encore Unprecedented Success Raises Expectations for Area Softball Teams

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

SOFTBALL PREVIEW; Quartet Aims for Encore Unprecedented Success Raises Expectations for Area Softball Teams

Article excerpt

Byline: ZACHARY SPAIN

Mike Young used to temper any success his softball teams had by pointing elsewhere.

To South Florida, to Texas, to California.

Now, the Bishop Snyder softball coach has to look no further than the outfield fence.

"I'm starting to see us compete where I always thought North Florida was behind," Young said. "I used to tell my girls, 'You have to go down to South Florida, that's where they play better ball.'

"I think we're starting to catch up."

The proof is in the team that surrounds him.

Last season, the Cardinals, loaded with underclassmen and in just their second varsity season, won the Class 2A state championship to join Clay in 2001 as the only schools from the First Coast to win a title since fast-pitch softball was sanctioned by the Florida High School Athletic Association in 1988.

The rarity of it was not lost on Young.

"That was definitely something that, after we had some time to let it sink in, thinking about what we accomplished, is pretty significant to me," Young said.

But the Cardinals weren't alone at the top. For the first time, four Northeast Florida schools - Palatka in 4A, West Nassau in 3A, Eagle's View in A and Bishop Snyder - advanced to the state semifinals.

"We're just putting ourselves on the map," Bishop Snyder pitcher Taylor Wright said. "It's only going to get better from here."

And according to coaches such as Candace Hicken at West Nassau and Curt Smith at Palatka, the trend should continue.

They point to the proliferation of travel teams and year-round softball programs as well as the growth in prominence of and opportunities in college softball, which has grown from a niche, regional sport to one whose College World Series is televised.

"I think it's been a pretty steady progression," Smith said. Added Hicken: "North Florida has caught up with South Florida, which means we play better teams consistently.

"That makes us stronger."

But with new success comes a few more challenges.

At Palatka, which reached the final four for the first time, Smith reminds his team that a return is not certain.

"We pretty much harp on that every day," Smith said. "They know there are no guarantees."

That's why the Panthers' team motto is "No excuses, next year is here."

The theme at Bishop Snyder is similar.

"State champs, that was last year," said Wright, the junior pitcher. "This year is a whole different story."

The Cardinals return with seven starters, most of whom are juniors or younger, which means Young reminds them how unique their situation is.

"It happened so quick, so early," he said. "Now the hardest part is, where do you go from here?"

zachary.spain@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4106

5 TEAMS TO WATCH

Bishop Snyder: The Cardinals enjoyed an unexpected run to the state title in just its second year of varsity softball. …

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