Palmetto Senior High School special education teacher and coach Emilio Exposito kicked off the first day of girls’ softball practice with a pep talk to his team recently.
“I told them that 2021 was going to be their year, and that if they worked hard and showed heart, there’s an excellent chance they’d make it to the state championship game in May,” he says.
Exposito has every reason to feel confident. The Palmetto Panthers girls’ softball team is a perennial powerhouse in South Florida, having made it to the state tournament 3 times during his coaching career. During the 2020 season, which ended early due to the pandemic, the Panthers beat every Miami-Dade and Broward County team they faced. They lost only one player to graduation, senior Katie Burge, who accepted a softball scholarship to the University of Central Florida.
He says the team looks as strong as it’s ever been, led by senior captain Olivia Rapp, a stellar outfielder, and strengthened by junior pitchers and infielders Melody Vizcaino, Isabella Martinez and Alexis Ortega.
“We’re blessed with talent in every position,” says Exposito. “On top of that, the girls work extremely hard and many play softball year-round. Everyone on the team has high standards and expectations.”
Coaching is the other factor responsible for the team’s continuous success. Exposito began coaching the Panther girls 12 years ago, when he joined Palmetto as a math teacher. A former high school and college baseball catcher, Exposito and his chief assistant coach and previous college teammate Ryan Ricke bring a different mentality and strategy to the game. Newly acquired assistant coach and former college player Carissa Licata will also help mold the girls into well rounded players.
“The way we call the game and the overall strategy is different from the way other teams do it,” he explains. “We have a unique coaching philosophy. We’re hard on the girls. There are no days off. They know much is expected of them, and yet the players and their parents are all in.”
Exposito’s own passion for sports was sparked by his father, Manny.
“My dad ran a business and worked all day, came home and took me to my baseball practices and games. He was always there for me, and even today, he comes to the Palmetto games and offers constructive criticism of my coaching.”
Now more than ever, Exposito wants that championship ring because his father has been battling cancer for over a year and he wants nothing less than to win it for his dad and make him proud.
When the season opens on February 16 with the GMAC Tournament, the Palmetto Panthers will more than likely face their traditional adversaries, Coral Reef High School’s Barracudas in the final.
“Each year, we battle it out to go to state, and we usually play them four-five times during the season. We know each other pretty well,” says Exposito.
Although the pandemic is still raging, Exposito is hopeful that the 2021 softball season will run its full course.
“We take precautions to keep our players and coaches safe, just as the other Palmetto teams have done. The football team had an outstanding season and both basketball teams are currently playing top notch basketball as well.”
The recently married Exposito is confident and excited about shaping the team into championship contenders.
“The girls are hungry and laser-focused. We practice every day and do a lot of scrimmaging because there is nothing like head to head competition. The parents so far like what they see, and so do I.”