Three state championships and 10 trips to the state final four highlight Miami-Dade County’s most successful public school softball program.
But before last season, it had been a three-year struggle for Palmetto to get past district rival Coral Reef and back to its prominent status as a state title contender.
The Panthers finally did last season, upending their nemesis 9-8 in the regional semifinals and making it to state with a 21-3 record.
Palmetto’s goal this season isn’t just to visit Vero Beach.
The Panthers have one of the most potent lineups in the state and a pair of pitchers that might just be enough to bring back their first state championship since 2008.
“It’s a very strong upperclassmen group that’s looking to repeat making it to state and has a state title in mind,” Palmetto coach Emilio Exposito said. “We’re a very strong hitting team and a sound defensive team.”
Senior middle infielder and Barry University commitment Brittany Phillips (.525 batting average, 37 RBI and 42 runs scored last season) leads the Panthers’ potent lineup.
Phillips will be joined in that infield once again by sophomore first baseman Lauren Margolis (.617, four home runs and 44 RBI last season).
Speedy junior Hannah Burge is one of Dade’s best outfielders coming off a season in which she hit .636 with 53 runs scored and 14 stolen bases.
One of the biggest keys will be the leadership of senior catcher/third baseman Jayla Digennaro, who hit .481 with 39 RBI last season and belted 15 doubles. She is headed to Lynn University.
In addition to her bat and defense as Palmetto’s back stop, her management of talented pitching duo Brittney Barczak and Daijaa Williams will play a pivotal role.
Williams went 10-1 and struck out 51 with a 2.72 ERA last season, while splitting starts with Barczak, who went 8-3 with a 3.46 ERA and 67 strikeouts.
Along with Digennaro, senior Janelle Dominguez will also play catcher and right field and is expected to add punch to the lineup.
Coral Reef figures to present Palmetto with its biggest challenge locally once again as the Barracudas, who went to state three consecutive seasons before the Panthers broke through last year, return a versatile young group led by junior Janelle Boyd.
Among the other contenders in Class 9A are Southwest, Lourdes and Coral Gables. Other serious state title contenders figure to be Doral in Class 7A, Gulliver in Class 5A and Westminster Christian in Class 4A.
Westminster is looking to make its fourth consecutive trip to state and has one of the strongest lineups in the state. Senior center fielder Nikkia Benitez and shortstop Ally Mena combined for 23 home runs and 75 runs in 2016.
1. Palmetto; 2. Westminster Christian; 3. Gulliver; 4. Doral; 5. Coral Reef; 6. Southwest; 7. Coral Gables; 8. Lourdes; 9. American; 10. Goleman; On the rise: Florida Christian, St. Brendan.
TOP RETURNING PLAYERS
P: Ashley Alfonso, American, Jr.; Brittney Barczak, Palmetto, Jr.; Lilly Barlow, Gulliver, Sr.; Angelina Bonilla, Coral Gables, Fr.; Brooklyn Maguire, Westminster Christian, Jr.; Gabriela Ruiz, Doral, So.; Victoria Perez, Westminster Christian, Jr.; Daijaa Williams, Palmetto, Sr.; INF: Carydad Bolivar, Braddock, Jr.; Emma Cavo, Coral Gables, Sr.; Janessa Casanas, Coral Reef, So.; Tyenna Colon, American, Jr.; Nicole Gonzalez, Lourdes, So.; Kiley Kross, Palmetto, Jr.; Lauren Margolis, Palmetto, So.; Ally Mena, Westminster Christian, Sr.; Brittany Phillips, Palmetto, Sr.; Carolina Silverio, Southwest, Sr.; C: Jayla Digennaro, Palmetto, Sr.; Alexis Guzman, American, Sr.; Kathleen Rios, Pace, Jr.; OF: Nikkia Benitez, Westminster Christian, Sr.; Hannah Burge, Palmetto, Jr.; Ashley Castano, Westminster Christian, Sr.; Natasha Gonzalez, Lourdes, Jr.; Kayla Jensen, Gulliver, Sr.; UT: Janelle Boyd, Coral Reef, Jr.; Natalie Costero, Goleman, Sr.; Mekayla Frazier, Gulliver, Fr.
NOTE: For complete team-by-team outlooks, go to www.miamiherald.com/sports/high-school/
TEAM-BY-TEAM OUTLOOKS –
PALMETTO (Coach Emilio Exposito, 6th year at PAL, 9th overall). Last year: 21-3 (State semifinalist). Top players: 2B-SS Brittany Phillips, Sr.; OF Hannah Burge, Jr.; 1B Lauren Margolis, So.; C-3B Jayla Digennaro, Sr.; P Brittney Barczak, Jr.; P Daijaa Williams, Sr.
CORAL REEF (Coach Dario Rodriguez, 5th year, 86-25). Last year: 21-10 (Regional semifinalist). Top players: P-2B-OF Janelle Boyd, Jr.; SS Janessa Casanas, So.; 1B-OF Katerina Boix, Jr.; OF Amanda Grullon, Sr.; P-OF Gigi Stauffer, So.; 3B-OF Jenice Casanas, So.
CORAL GABLES (Coach Natalie de la Vega, 11th year). Last year: 14-8 (Regional semifinalist). Top players: P-INF Angelina Bonilla, Fr.; 3B Ema Cavo, Sr.; P-INF Sydney Pell, Fr.; CF Alaina Bonilla, Sr.; SS Kylie Santana, So.; C-3B Ashley Knapp, Jr.
LOURDES (Coach Jose Estevez, 2nd year at LOU, 7th overall, 88-57). Last year: 12-12 (Regional quarterfinalist). Top players: SS Nicole Gonzalez, So.; P-OF Natasha Gonzalez, Jr.; P-1B Nora Zubillaga, So.; P-OF Jackie Lorente, Jr.; 2B-3B Stephanie Iglesias, Jr.; 1B Emily Hernandez, Sr.
AMERICAN (Coach David Fernandez, 1st year). Last year: 19-10 (Regional finalist). Top players: SS Tyenna Colon, Jr.; C Alexis Guzman, Sr.; OF Yanelys Fernandez, Sr.; 1B-UT Karla Soza, Sr.; P Ashley Alfonso, Jr.
BRADDOCK (Coach Addy Marcote, 27th year, 364-244-4). Last year: 7-12. Top players: 1B-P Carydad Bolivar, Jr.; SS-INF Nicole Caldera, Jr.; UT Claudia Marrero, Sr.
KROP (Coach Krista Latessa, 12th year, 125-63). Last year: 11-6. Top players: INF Brooke Studnik, Sr.; P Karina Delarosa, Sr.
CORAL PARK (Coach Horacio Sierra, 16th year, 121-166). Last year: 6-11. Top players: P Katherine Gonzalez, Sr.; 1B-3B Jackie Vera, Sr.; C Maria Zamora, Jr.; SS Samantha Crespo, Jr.
VARELA (Coach Enrique Melo, 1st year at VAR, 4th year overall, 21-27). Last year: 0-15. Top players: 3B Sara Ceballos, Sr.; CF Gabriella Mueller, Sr.; C Michelle Rivera, Sr.; 2B Brook Morris, Sr.; P Daniella Alzate, Fr.; 1B Susana Ceballos, So.; SS Angelina Padron, So.; LF Rebecca James, So.; RF Nataly Prieto, So.
MIAMI BEACH (Coach Peter Kraus, 1st year). Last year: 2-14. Top players: P Magdalena Demetriades, Sr.; 3B Anabelle Moore, Jr.; C Ana Demetriades, Fr.; SS Evelyn Traico, Jr.
DORAL (Coach Walter Acevedo, 9th year, 126-80). Last year: 17-8 (Regional semifinalist). Top players: SS-P Gabriella Ruiz, So.; CF-2B Janelle Figueroa, So.; 3B-SS Alexa Sanchez, Jr.; P-1B Amanda Aragon, Sr.; 1B-RF Ashley Jarquin, Sr.; 2B-C Kaitlyn Perez, Sr.
GOLEMAN (Coach Orlando Barreda, 10th year, 139-55). Last year: 17-5 (Regional quarterfinalist). Top players: P-INF Natalie Costero, Sr.; INF Emily Bacallao, Sr.; UT Natalie Perez, Sr.; UT Denise Hernandez, Jr.; C Kourtney Lohn, Sr.; INF Adriana Bueno, Jr.
MIAMI SPRINGS (Coach Charlie Green, 27th year, 480-138). Last year: 21-3 (Regional quarterfinalist). Top players: INF Kristin Medina, Sr.; C Amanda Parsons, So.; OF Briana Gomez, Sr.; P Mallory Mitnick, So.; INF Jasmine Echeverria, Jr.; INF Alicia Negrin, Sr.
GULLIVER (Coach Mark Schusterman). Last year: 17-9 (Regional finalist). Top players: P Lilly Barlow, Sr.; UT Mekayla Frazier, Fr.; INF Meyte Lezcano, Sr.; UT Taylor Heyser, Sr.; C C.C. Castillo, Jr.
FLORIDA CHRISTIAN (Coach Scott Stemmer). Last year: 10-15. Top players: P Megan Rodriguez, So.; INF Andrea Delgado, 7th; OF Victoria Alonso, Sr.
MONSIGNOR PACE (Coach Alexis Nieto, 1st year). Last year: N/A. Top players: SS Monica Marquez, Sr.; C Kathleen Rios, Jr.; P Cassidy Ziegler, Sr.; 1B-LF Natalie Rodriguez, Sr.; 2B Tiffany Pou, Sr.
CARROLLTON (Coach Alex Consuegra, 15th year at CAR, 23rd overall). Last year: 8-12. Top players: INF Caroline Dowell-Esquivel, So.; INF Genesis Diaz, Sr.; C Elizabeth Bec, Jr.; OF Ceci DeLaGuardia, So.; P Melanie Florez, So.; INF Lydia Cardelle, Sr.
ST. BRENDAN (Coach Angel Torres, 1st year at STB, 7th overall, 80-29). Last year: 6-9. Top players: SS Eliza Artiles, Sr.; 3B Victoria Lara, Sr.; 1B Andrea Blasco, Sr.; C Katie Martinez, Sr.; UT Autumn Lopez, Sr.; C Susana Perez, Fr.
LA SALLE (Coach Rick Hernandez, 2nd year, 9-5). Last year: 9-5. Top players: P-3B-SS Arianna Arroyo, Jr.; SS-2B-CF-C Kimberly Montesi, Jr.; 2B-SS Laura Sardinas, Jr.; C-3B Beatriz Triay, Jr.; 1B-OF Tiffany Regueira, Jr.; 1B-OF-P Yasmine Regueira, Fr.
WESTMINSTER CHRISTIAN (Coach Scott Doan, 13th year at WC, 27th overall, 591-152). Last year: 21-5 (State semifinalist). Top players: SS Ally Mena, Sr.; CF Nikkia Benitez, Sr.; 1B-P Victoria Perez, Jr.; RF Ashley Castano, Sr.; 2B Adri Otero, Sr.; 3B Dani Amador, Jr.
MIAMI COUNTRY DAY (Coach Chris Antonopoulos, 18th year, 155-92). Last year: 7-8. Top players: SS Mary Elizabeth Allen, Sr.; P Michelle Yakobi, Jr.; 1B Isabella Allen, So.; CF Sierra Mathis, Sr.; 3B Veronica Ben-David, Sr.; UT Alicia Kelly, So.
PALMER TRINITY (Coach Jennifer Cerda, 3rd year at PT, 9th overall). Last year: 4-12. Top players: INF-P Lauren Keller, Sr.; P-INF Victoria Torres, So.; INF Bridget Haller, 6th; INF Allison Galgano, Jr.; CF Sophie Rivas, Sr.; UT Megan Keller, 8th.