Watching her current, former teams surge a real treat for Traina

Seacrest coach Jackie Traina, back center, watches Naples' Ashlee Lykins deliver a pitch during the Golden Eagles' 5-2 win over the Stingrays on April 25 at Naples High School. GREGG HARDY/CSI

BY GREGG HARDY
CSI EDITOR

The Naples High School and Seacrest Country Day School softball programs — both of which stamped their ticket to regionals this week — come from two different places, figuratively speaking.

Naples has won 12 state titles — it’s last coming in 2008. That would be two years before Seacrest’s inaugural season.

It was fitting then that Jackie Traina — a star pitcher on that 2008 Golden Eagles squad — made her return to Naples High on April 25 as the Eagles and Stingrays wound down a pivotal 2019 season for both programs. Naples beat Seacrest 5-2 to avenge a 7-6 extra-inning loss at Seacrest on March 20.

PHOTO GALLERY: View images from the Seacrest-Naples game

“That was me … ’08,” said Traina, Seacrest’s co-head coach, while looking at the sign under the Naples High scoreboard that lists each of the Golden Eagles’ championship seasons. “It really doesn’t (feel like it’s been 11 years) — I guess because I’m still around (the game). It doesn’t really feel like very long ago to be honest.”

This has been a pivotal season for both Naples and Seacrest in two distinctly different ways.

At Seacrest, the sky might be the limit with this young, emerging team. Aided by the arrival of two standout players and the improvement exhibited by their returning players, the Stingrays (18-4-1) took on an ambitious schedule this season. They punctuated it by claiming the Class 2A-District 6 title with Tuesday’s 10-0 win over Sarasota Christian.

Olivia Laney delivers a pitch against Naples on April 25. GREGG HARDY/CSI

Playing against public schools like Naples, Gulf Coast and Estero helped the Stingrays get to this point. (Seacrest beat Gulf Coast, 11-3, and lost 3-0 to a stout Estero squad.)

“We thought it was time to start pushing the kids,” said Stingrays co-head coach John Kruk, the former three-time Major League All-Star with the Philadelphia Phillies who took over the Seacrest program in 2017.

(When Kruk arrived two years ago, the Stingrays didn’t even have a home field; instead, they played their “home” games at East Naples Community Park. Kruk was instrumental in helping Seacrest get the funds to build a home field.)

“We got really lucky,” Kruk said when freshman Daniela DiBenedetto and eighth-grade pitcher Olivia Laney joined Seacrest after moving from New York and Tennessee, respectively.

The waters haven’t been totally calm for the Stingrays, though. They had to overcome the loss of starting third baseman Lily Bonello, who suffered a knee injury during spring break.

Said Traina: “We can go as far as the team wants them to go. We can supply them with the tools, but at the end of the day, it’s how bad they want it, and how bad that they’re going to work for it and come together as a team and all be on the same page.

“We have a great opportunity ahead of us, so I’m excited.”

Naples (15-7) is in Year 2 of coach Brian Hunt’s tenure and coming off back-to-back sub-.500 seasons — in fact, well below .500. They went 6-16 in 2017 (under Katie Raile, who starred alongside Traina on that 2008 title team) and 5-10 in 2018. 

Naples catcher Caroline Figueroa eyes a Seacrest runner during the Golden Eagles’ 5-2 win on April 25. GREGG HARDY/CSI

The Eagles are trying to regain the dominance they displayed before former longtime coach Robert Iamurri departed in 2014 to launch Florida SouthWestern State College’s softball program. Iamurri, who immediately built FSW into a national powerhouse (including this year’s 52-1 record), guided Naples to all 12 of its state titles, starting with the first one — a slow-pitch crown — in 1987.

After last week’s loss to Seacrest, Golden Eagles catcher Caroline Figueroa said, “I feel as though this year is more of a rebuilding year. We’re trying to work to become better in the following years.” 

The rebuild seems to have been greatly expedited, as the Eagles followed up Tuesday’s 12-6 home win over Lehigh with a 4-3 road upset of Riverdale on Wednesday in the Class 7A-District 12 tournament. (Figueroa starred in both games, going 2 for 4 with a home run, two RBIs and two runs scored against Lehigh, and 4 for 4 with two doubles, an RBI and two runs scored against Riverdale.)

Naples will visit No. 1 seed Estero on Friday for the district title.

MORE ON TRAINA

Jackie Traina confers inside the pitcher’s circle — the same one she once pitched within while playing for Naples High — with her Seacrest players. GREGG HARDY/CSI

Returning to the very same Naples High field where she dominated opponents more than a decade ago, Traina said, “It’s fun to be back here, and I’m glad to share it with this young team that I have.”

Traina has not just been a big influence on the Seacrest softball program. The former University of Alabama star (who won a national title and went on to pitch for Team USA) gives pitching and hitting lessons to both local and out-of-state players. Last year, she launched a local travel team that included players from other area schools.

Figueroa, who was 5 years old when Traina led Naples to its last state title (“It has been a while,” the Eagles sophomore catcher lamented), said she has handled catching duties during some of Traina’s pitching lessons.

“She’s phenomenal at both (pitching and hitting),” Figueroa said of Traina. “It really benefits the softball society in Naples.

“It’s nice to see her back here.”

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