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How they'll fare is up in air

Graduation drains the county's three teams of talented players, creating season full of uncertainty.

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002


BROOKSVILLE -- Gary Buel has seen enough.

The whole "Bear Ball" thing has been a cute novelty, especially since Central has been able to scrape together enough runs in four of the past five district tournaments to ride its pitching into regional play.

But now staff workhorse Patrick Ryan is gone.

Though Buel thinks he has qualified replacements in Thomas Lobianco and others, the coach knows there's no guarantee they will be able to maximize 3.7 runs per game as well as Ryan did.

The defense behind him often was unspectacular anyway, so this season Buel said he's filling the lineup with his best hitters and taking his chances in the field.

It's another dilemma in a season potentially full of them. Hernando also is facing the reality of a large-scale talent drain because of graduation.

The Leopards finished a disappointing 13-15 last year, and must deal with the loss of center fielder Dee Brown, who led the squad in batting average (.489), runs (34), hits (45), RBIs (36) and homers (12).

Hey, everybody's got problems.

Springstead coach Tracy Clark watched a young and retooled Eagles club go 5-22 last season and now hopes another new group, led by holdover pitchers Mike Diaz and Tom Gedulig, can fare better.

"I know this team will be successful," Clark said. "They have a very strong work ethic. We need some people to step up where we're unproven, but I know we'll be better."

Buel is coping with his situation at Central with a different approach.

"I'd love to have the guys who hit the bombs, but we haven't had that since '97," Buel said.

"I told the guys, "Look, if you're one of the best nine hitters on the field, I'm going to do everything I can to get you on the field.'

"We'll give up some defense for offense," he said.

It's not that "Bear Ball" didn't work. Amazingly, Central went 14-16 and reached the regional semifinals despite batting .243 last season. Springstead hit .001 worse.

Ushering out "Bear Ball" might not be simple. Seven of Central's first nine hitters struck out in the squad's first exhibition game.

Help should be found up the middle. Junior shortstop D.J. Anderson was second among regulars with a .267 batting average and co-led in doubles and stolen bases (6). He seemed to grow more comfortable as an underclassman starter as last season progressed, but his 18 errors were problematic.

"He'll be an interesting one to watch," Hernando coach Tim Sims said. "You can tell he has a lot of fun playing the game."

Senior second baseman Jamie McElfresh returns after leading Central with a .277 average, but the power Buel is seeking has yet to emerge in either player.

Conversely, Sims is trading in a power-laden Hernando squad for a scrappy group, and he seems delighted.

"This team seems to be more a team that kind of matches up with how I used to play the game and my group that went through (Hernando)," Sims said.

"Dee and (Chris) Cole and the last three teams sort of matched up with (assistant coach Donnie) Whitehead's type teams, with a bunch of bombers and one stopper pitcher.

"I'm kind of enjoying this," Sims said.

The young Leopards can't say the same of preseason workouts, which have been typified by conditioning defensive drills.

"This generation of kids -- and I say this not tongue-in-cheek -- they are lazy and out of shape," Sims said. "The type of running they're doing is about three-quarters of the kind we used to do -- not even running full.

"We felt last year it was a problem with a senior-laden group to be lazy, and we're not going to do it again this year."

Left fielder Ben Bunn (.240) and first baseman Jake Oleson (.200) will be counted on to make quantum offensive improvements in the third and fourth spots. But Jerad Brotherwood, a catcher who transferred from Central during last season, could be a major help if he improves a .173 batting average and develops his power potential.

Hernando will rely heavily on pitching to offset the offensive drain.

Junior Brad Wyatt (2-4, 3.05 ERA) begins his third varsity season as the logical ace, with Willie Fifer (1-2, 9.05) and Jeremy Balogh (0-0, 9.15) filling out the staff.

Sims is hopeful, but reserved, after watching a club with high expectations and copious talent stagnate last season.

"Every year, if you're at Hernando, you're going to put a conference championship and a district title up as a goal," he said. "But realistically, we'll be on time and play hard."

Staff writer Brant James can be reached at (800) 333-7505, ext. 1407, or brant@sptimes.com.

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