After a 2020 season cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, high school softball safely navigated through the 2021 season in North Central Florida.
And for the teams in The Prep Zone Power Poll powered by Anytime Fitness, there were some state champions, state runners-up and plenty of teams who advanced to the state semifinals in Clermont.
Finishing in the top spot after winning their first fast-pitch softball state title are the 4A champs, the Eustis Panthers. In the state playoffs, Eustis (27-1) outscored its five opponents 38-2 behind sophomore pitcher Libby Levandoski, who struck out 17 Hernando (Brooksville) hitters in the 5-0 victory for the Panthers in the 4A state championship game.
The Panthers beat No. 4 Ridgeview (Orange Park) 2-0 in the state semifinals and No. 5 Hernando in the title game and receive six of the eight first-place votes as they move up from fourth in the previous poll to No. 1 in the final rankings. The only loss for Eustis in 2021 was 5-4 to eventual 6A state runner-up Winter Springs.
University (Orange City) finishes second. The Titans (25-1) made it through the regular season and district tournament unbeaten, and won Region 1-7A with wins over RV Bartram Trail (St. Johns), No. 16 Oakleaf (Orange Park), and a region final win at Lake Brantley (Altamonte Springs). University faced a fellow unbeaten team in Park Vista (Lake Worth) in the state semifinal in Clermont, losing 4-3. Park Vista lost in the 7A title game to Lakewood Ranch (Bradenton) 14-4.
University finishes second while also receiving a first-place vote.
Coming in third is 1A state champion Trenton. The Tigers (20-1) repeated as 1A state champs, defeating No. 10 Dixie County (Cross City) 4-0 in the Region 4-1A final to advance to Clermont. Trenton rallied past No. 15 Branford, 3-2, in the state semifinal, then held off Jay a 5-4 title game victory that was their second in the past three years. The Tigers also captured the 1A championship in 2019 and were state runners-up in 2018 and won 57 of their last 58 games under coach Todd Bryant, who announced his retirement after the win.
The Tigers, who beat a talented Dixie County team three times en route to the repeat, received the final first-place vote.
Ridgeview drops a couple of spots to finish fourth, despite their second straight trip to the final four. The Panthers (26-4) advanced through a tough Region 1-4A with wins over RV Clay (Green Cove Springs) and No. 7 Baker County (Glen St. Mary) in the region final, rallying for three runs in the bottom of the seventh to beat the Wildcats. But like Hernando, Ridgeview ran into a red-hot Levandoski of Eustis in the state semifinals and lost there for the second time in a row.
Hernando rounds out the top five. The Leopards (26-5) also advanced to the state semifinal for the second tournament in a row, but this time rallied from a 8-2 deficit in the fifth inning against American Heritage (Plantation) to win 9-8 and advance to their first state title game appearance since 2000.
Class 3A state semifinalist Episcopal (Jacksonville) starts off the second five. The Eagles (23-6) knocked off then-No. 5 West Nassau (Callahan) on a walk-off homer in the region semifinal and defeated Marianna in the Region 1-3A final to advance to their first state semifinal appearance. Episcopal was beaten by eventual 3A state runner-up Windermere Prep, 4-0, but it was still a historic season for the Eagles, who moved up five spots to finish No. 6.
After Baker County at No. 7 is 2A state runner-up University Christian (Jacksonville) at No. 8. The Christians (18-3), who were unranked in the final regular season poll, upset then-No. 9 Trinity Christian (Jacksonville) 11-6 in the Region 1-2A final to advance to the 2A final four in Clermont. After an 8-3 win over No. 17 Mount Dora Christian Academy in the state semifinals, UC came up short, 3-1, in the 2A final to Canterbury School (St. Petersburg) in a game that had only four hits combined.
West Nassau finishes ninth, while Dixie County rounds out the top 10.
Besides University Christian and Mount Dora Christian Academy, also new to the poll is Branford. Taylor (Pierson) also moves in at a tie for 20th with Baldwin. Falling out from the previous poll are Nature Coast Tech (Brooksville), West Port (Ocala), and Lecanto.
1. Eustis (4A) (6) (27-1) - 158
2. University (Orange City) (7A) (1) (25-1) - 149
3. Trenton (1A) (1) (20-1) - 145
4. Ridgeview (Orange Park) (4A) (26-4) - 137
5. Hernando (Brooksville) (4A) (26-5) - 128
6. Episcopal (Jacksonville) (3A) (23-6) - 115
7. Baker County (Glen St. Mary) (4A) (18-8) - 97
8. University Christian (Jacksonville) (2A) (18-3) - 93
9. West Nassau (Callahan) (3A) (20-7) - 84
10. Dixie County (Cross City) (1A) (20-3) - 80
11. East Ridge (Clermont) (7A) (20-8) - 73
12. Creekside (St. Johns) (6A) (20-6) - 65
13. Trinity Christian (Jacksonville) (2A) (17-7) - 64
14. Belleview (4A) (21-8) - 48
15. Branford (1A) (15-5) - 43
16. Oakleaf (Orange Park) (7A) (17-10) - 38
17. Mount Dora Christian Academy (2A) (20-9) - 35
18. South Lake (Groveland) (6A) (21-5) - 20
19. Gainesville (5A) (18-7) - 19
20T. Baldwin (3A) (20-6) - 16