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Of the area high school programs with the potential to play championship-caliber softball this spring, two in particular are leading the charge.

Those who’ve watched the Auburndale and Bartow varsity teams this season know the Bloodhounds and Yellow Jackets are for real. And the Florida High School Athletic Association’s first set of softball power rankings – coupled with the results of the recent Bartow Home of Champions Tournament – lends even more credibility to both schools.

The FHSAA released its initial softball power rankings last week, where Auburndale emerged first in Class 5A and ninth in the state with a 17.546 rating, while Bartow was sixth in Class 6A and 15th overall at 16.827. The rankings will be used to seed the district tournaments that are scheduled to begin the week of April 26.

At the district level, Auburndale is on a clear path to the No. 1 seed in 5A-9 with Tampa Freedom having the next highest power ranking at 5.598. Meanwhile, Bartow’s advantage in Class 6A-District 6 was equally impressive as Orange Belt Conference member Liberty High ranked second with a 6.944 mark and Winter Haven followed in third at 3.852.

Additional data surfaced over the weekend as Bartow and Auburndale squared off last Saturday in the title game of the 2021 Home of Champions Tournament. The two-day event covered nine teams – including Winter Haven and Class 4A-District 12 programs Lake Region and Lake Wales – playing at Bartow High and/or the 555 Softball Complex.

Tied in the bottom of the seventh inning, senior Alyssa Hall secured a 2-1 win for Bartow by hitting a two-out solo home run. The Yellow Jackets, who previously dropped a 1-0 decision to Auburndale on March 16, completed a four-game tournament sweep and improved to 13-2 overall.

The Bloodhounds lost for the first time after a sparkling 13-0 start. Their road to the Home of Champions final included shutout wins on Friday against Group C opponents Tampa Catholic and Braden River as well as a 3-0 semifinal decision over 2019 state champion Winter Springs on Saturday behind winning pitcher Gena Stutz’s two-hitter.

Bartow advanced to the Home of the Champions semifinals by placing first in Group A. The Yellow Jackets defeated Sarasota Booker, 15-0, on Friday before earning a 4-1 victory over St. Petersburg Canterbury.

Saturday’s Bartow-Lake Region semifinal marked the rematch of a Feb. 26 regular-season game that went to the Yellow Jackets in extra innings. This time, Bartow broke a 3-3 tie in the top of the seventh on senior Kailey Guethle’s RBI double to right-center field.

Bartow’s Mattye Geddings made the most of a spot-start in the championship game, allowing only a fourth-inning run, before Katelynn Oxley (who pitched in the semifinals) entered in relief in the top of the seventh and recorded three outs. The Yellow Jackets – who are now headed to the Kissimmee Klassic where they open with Callahan West Nassau on Thursday (April 1) - tied the score 1-1 in the sixth inning when Shayla Narcisse doubled and scored on Emily Hendrix’s RBI single.

Sophomore left-hander Kassidy Pontbriant allowed five hits over 6 2/3 innings for Auburndale. Pontbriant threw a complete-game two-hitter with 13 strikeouts in the Bloodhounds’ preliminary-round win over Braden River.

Lake Region entered the Home of Champions Tournament with an 11.288 power ranking. That left the Thunder (No. 63 overall) with the sixth-best mark in Class 4A and the top rating in District 12.

The Thunder advanced to the semifinal bracket out of Group B, posting an 8-6 win over Class 5A standout Fort Myers and a 9-3 victory over Winter Haven. Lake Region (10-5) finished in fourth place after dropping a 7-3 decision to Winter Springs on Saturday as the Bears rallied with a five-run seventh inning.

Lake Wales (9-8) split a pair of consolation games on Saturday – an 11-3 win over Braden River on the strength of junior Lexi Thomas’ grand slam and a 12-5 setback to Canterbury. – and is set to resume regular-season play on Thursday against Ridge Community High.

The Highlanders were No. 13 in the Class 4A power rankings at 7.462, good for the second seed in District 12 behind Lake Region. The district also includes Hardee (3.563), Sebring (1.217), Mulberry (-3.125) and DeSoto County (-8.817).