Lady Hammerheads drive home point that Naples is still a force in softball

The Naples Lady Hammerheads 10U squad shows off their hardware after capturing the South Florida State championship on July 1 in Cape Coral. SUBMITTED PHOTO

BY GREGG HARDY
CSI EDITOR

Once upon a time, Naples was considered a national hotbed for fast-pitch softball — both at the high school and Little League levels.

From the 1980s right up to the latter half of the 2000s, Naples High School was racking up state championships, and two youth squads, the Naples Braves and Naples Queens, were collecting World Series trophies at a dizzying pace.

For whatever reason, though, the well has run dry. Naples High’s Class 4A state title in 2008 was the last trophy of major consequence to be raised here.

The 10U squad of the Naples Lady Hammerheads travel softball club has stepped in to let the rest of the country know that softball in Naples is still “a thing” (that’s the label kids use today, yes?). These girls, ranging from 9 to 11 years old, won’t be playing for a national championship later this month at a season-ending tournament in Tennessee, but they’ve definitely made a name for themselves both at the state and national levels.

Coached by Walter Rascher, Meghan Leiti, Chris Baker and Corie Williams, the Lady Hammerheads 10U squad won seven straight tournaments at one point this season en route to claiming the South Florida State championship on July 1 in Cape Coral. (They got to play a single “home” game in the tourney on June 30 at North Collier Regional Park, where CSI caught up with them.) They’re the 14th-best travel team in the country, according to the most recent USSSA rankings, and are ranked second in the state (behind only the Gold Coast Hurricanes).

PHOTO GALLERY: View images from the Lady Hammerheads’ home win at South Florida States

“Unfortunately, (we) have seen a decline in (Naples softball),” said Leiti, a former track and field athlete at Naples High who once worked on the staff of Golden Eagles coaching icon Robert Iamurri (who is now the head softball coach for Florida SouthWestern State College). “We’re trying really hard to build it back up.

“We (would) like to go up there (to Tennessee) and hopefully win that just so we can represent Southwest Florida.”

Leiti’s daughter Mackenzie, the Lady Hammerheads’ catcher, is looking forward to the big trip — and not just because of softball. Clearly a music buff, Mackenzie wants to do some karaoke singing and make a trip to Dollywood.

“I just want to do it and play around with it,” said the younger Leiti, who is preparing to enter sixth grade at Gulfview Middle School.

Other members of the team will go to Six Flags in Atlanta on the way up to Tennessee.

“We try to do it once a year — just make a trip out of it — for all the families to be together and have some fun outside of softball,” Meghan Leiti said.

But there’s also business to be done on the softball diamond. The Lady Hammerheads are looking to win their final tournament of the season, just as they did last summer in Alabama.

“We ended up taking first in the tournament up there, and they were not too happy about that because we’re a little team from Naples, Florida,” Meghan Leiti said. “We were the only out-of-state team, and it was some good softball up there.”

Comprised mainly of Naples girls (there are also a couple from Fort Myers), the Lady Hammerheads are a close bunch, said third baseman Abby Rascher. Eight of them have been playing together since the 8U squad in 2015.

That bodes well for the Palmetto Ridge High School softball team, which Mackenzie Leiti believes will have 10 Lady Hammerheads — both from the 10U and 12U squads — playing for it in a few short years. In fact, Leiti said she hopes she can play for Palmetto Ridge when she gets to high school. (As a Gulfview student, she’s slated to go to Naples High.)

“I don’t want to play against (Palmetto Ridge) because almost half of our team is going there. We only have three girls going to (Naples High),” Leiti said.

Having Leiti as a high school teammate would be just fine with Rascher.

“Me and Mac have been together for a long time,” said Rascher, who is about to enter sixth grade at Cypress Palm Middle School.

The nationally ranked Lady Hammerheads 10U roster (in alphabetical order) includes: Brooke Bledsoe, Candice Chime, Gianna Frino, Mckenna Robbins, Mackenzie Leiti, Kathryn Hanypsiak, Courtney Blair, Joslyn Baker, Abby Rascher, Jordyn Kinn, Jaelyn Riley and Nevaeh Williams.

Follow CSI on Twitter at @239CSI or like CSI on Facebook at facebook.com/CollierSportsInsider. Email Gregg Hardy at editor@colliersportsinsider.com.