Clint Raulerson established the Panthers Fast Pitch travel team seven years ago with one goal: help Southwest Florida softball players obtain athletic scholarships.
Today he has three teams playing Under-18 softball this summer — Panthers Black, Panthers Purple and Panthers College. All of the players are from Southwest Florida or nearby surrounding areas.
“We really focus on local talent. There’s enough talent here that I don’t have to go anywhere else and get it,” Raulerson said. “It’s tough on outsiders to come in so I really believe it adds to the chemistry. They play against each other during the high school season.
“There are friendly rivalries there. They also come here and become one. This is a great group we have, with great chemistry between them.”
Panthers Purple consists of mostly underclassmen, while Panthers Black is filled with rising juniors and seniors. The College team is composed of girls who are signed to play softball in college or are home from their freshman year of junior college.
The three teams have traveled the state of Florida, gaining college interest on the way and playing some of the nation’s best. This weekend they will be playing their final tournament in Fort Lauderdale at the Rising Stars Summer Showcase Event. The showcase features more than 100 teams.
“We have several colleges follow us and watch us. FGCU likes local talent and coach David Deiros does a really good job with that,” Raulerson said.
“Ave Maria is following us, South Florida State College and St. Petersburg College. We’re getting a lot of kids looked at. We have 11 (Class of ) 2014 graduates in our program and we’re hoping to have them all sign in January.”
Bishop Verot’s Annette Castaldo, The News-Press Player of the Year, is a starting pitcher on the Panthers Black team. She is one of 16 All-Area players on the Black squad.
Castaldo said she is sporting a much improved changeup since Verot’s Class 4A semifinal appearance. Her ball drops quicker over the plate.
“It’s more laid back than the high school season,” Castaldo said. “We still want to win our games but we’re more focused on showing our skills.”
Verot’s district rival LaBelle has two players on the Black team, junior Beatriz Cardoza and senior Rachael Reinbott.
“It was a little awkward at first but it doesn’t really bother us anymore,” Reinbott said. “We gelled pretty quickly.”
Reinbott has picked up offers from SFSC and West Virginia State University this summer. Class of 2015 C/1B Marjorie Conner (Riverdale) and 3B/SS Alynn Kayatta (North Fort Myers) also play on the Black team. Class of 2016 SS/2B Makenzie Buss (Cape Coral) is one of two sophomores on the 14-player roster.
The program also welcomes college players to coach after completing their collegiate career. Raulerson’s daughter Paige (LaBelle/FGCU) is the head coach of the college team. Former Florida A&M outfielder Ashanti Shepherd (Moore Haven) and UCF outfielder Hailey Barraco (Bishop Verot) are assistant coaches in the Panthers program.
Hailey’s younger sister, Talia, headed to Embry-Riddle in the fall after spending two seasons at St. Petersburg College. She is using summer to train alongside the Panthers. She plans to help the program upon receiving her degree.
“We get a lot of kids that come back,” Raulerson said. “Our kids come back and give back to program. It’s a family type of organization and we want them to feel that. When these kids come back it shows that we are doing the right thing.”