BRADENTON — Scouting reports run through Brittany Kilduff’s head when a batter steps to the plate.
This hitter likes the ball away. Or this one likes it up high. Or this one chases pitches in the dirt.
Then someone such as Taylor Carlton or Emma Barlow steps in. And Kilduff has to give herself yet another instruction.
“All right,” Kilduff says to herself while standing in the circle, “don’t smile, don’t laugh.”
It’s easier than it sounds.
During the school year, Kilduff pitches for Lakewood Ranch. Carlton plays for Palmetto. Bowman splits time in the infield and outfield at Manatee.
Then comes the summer — and they turn into Twisters.
They’re a 16-under traveling softball team that practices two nights a week at Palma Sola Park and spends the weekends competing in tournaments.
They’re also a mixed bag of talent — this summer, the Twisters have at least one player from each of the county’s six public schools.
That’s right. Southeast Seminoles sharing the diamond with Manatee Hurricanes. A Palmetto Tiger flashing signs to a Bayshore Bruin. A Lakewood Ranch Mustang and Braden River Pirate playing catch before a practice.
The dichotomy makes its way into the coaches box — Twisters coach Mike Micochero spends the spring cheering on Manatee, where his daughter, Cindy, is the starting catcher.
Cindy is a Twister, too.
“If she’s not playing, four or five of us from this team ... we’ll go watch the ones at Braden River or Southeast,” Mike Micochero said. “It’s neat seeing that, especially when you play against them. That’s the fun part — because deep down, you want to beat them, but deep down, you’re high-fiving them for making a good play. And you see the girls do that. They’ve got their looks. They look at each other like, ‘Good job. I can’t say it because my coach is right here, but good job.’”
Travel ball is a different animal from high school ball.
Results are paramount in the spring, when teams are vying for choice seeds in the district tournament and a spot in the regional field. High school softball teams are allotted 25 games a year, so on any given night from February to late April, you could find someone playing softball somewhere in Manatee County.
Gaining college exposure is the purpose of travel ball, however, and games, especially during fall ball, are thrown in to break the monotony and give the girls a chance to put their schooling to use and get spotted by collegiate coaches.
During the summer, the Twisters practice twice a week and play in a tournament every other weekend. The centerpiece of this season’s tour was a seven-day tournament July in Panama City. Clearwater, Plant City and Miami were also on the schedule.
Meanwhile, the girls bond. Players cheer each on during defensive drills, while Kilduff and Bayshore’s Kaity Parsons work off a hitting tee.
“High school is different from travel,” Carlton said, “so we keep it different.”
Chemistry is a key component when Micochero is picking his team. Earlier in the summer, he tried out a girl from Lakewood Ranch after watching her play in the spring.
“She asked, ‘Why did you pick me?’” Micochero said. “I said, ‘Because I watched you on the field during high school. You’re the same personality, same attitude as these girls.’ If they don’t get along, they’re not going to play as a team. And I’ve had to turn away some decent talent.”
The common thread running through the Twisters, of course, is softball — or more importantly, the love of it, which allows the girls to sacrifice portions of their summers to log time on the diamond.
“We’d have a week off,” Kilduff said, “and we’ll be like, ‘Shouldn’t we be doing something?’”
It doesn’t hurt that they enjoy travel ball — just as much or even more than the high school season.
“Our motto now is, ‘Play for the name on the front, not the name on the back,’” Kilduff said. “So we just all come together during travel.
“We’re like a family. We go everywhere together.”
The girls’ workload isn’t limited to two days of practice a week. Kilduff, for example, pitches five days a week at Lakewood Ranch’s softball field, Barlow spends three hours a day at a camp at G.T. Bray and Carlton works on her hitting at home.
It’s a lot of work. But travel ball is also fun, especially when girls from all different teams come together to form a makeshift family.
“That’s the best thing about these girls who play all year long — they’re sisters,” Coach Micochero said. “They’re family.”