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Lecanto shifts focus to district

By EITH NIEBUHR
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 14, 2002

When Central beat Lecanto 4-3 two weeks ago, the Bears snapped the Panthers' 64-match, regular-season winning streak.

But losing had its benefits for Lecanto.

"It gave us a chance to celebrate our 64 wins," second-year Panthers coach Joan Roberts said. "We hadn't done that yet."

The "celebration" didn't last long.

Two days after losing to the Bears, Lecanto whipped Dunnellon to start a new streak. The Panthers have won three in a row, and for the record, 67 of their last 68 matches.

Now that the regular season is over, Lecanto (15-1) has its sights set on winning a fifth consecutive district championship at the Class 2A, District 6 tournament, which begins Monday in Lecanto.

The odds look good.

The Panthers went 10-0 in district play. Their toughest test came in a 4-3 win over Citrus, but they played without two regulars.

Lecanto's lineup is stacked.

At No. 1 singles, Jennifer Rimes is 13-3. No. 2 Nisha Shah (12-0), No. 3 Ashley Campbell (9-1), No. 4 Shreya Rao (10-2, 4-1 at No. 4) and No. 5 Sireesha Bellam (13-1, 2-1 at No. 5) have been solid. And the doubles teams of Rimes and Rao and Shah and Campbell are a combined 18-3.

"We're strong all the way down," Roberts said. "A lot of schools have a good No. 1 player, but this is a team sport.

"Just because you win at No. 1 doesn't mean you'll win the match. When we've lost at the top, we've won at the bottom."

The Panthers finished third at state in 2001. They returned three of their top five players from that team.

"We've got a good, strong team," Roberts said. "We're healthy and hitting well right now. Anything can happen at districts, though. We don't take anything for granted.

"We're going to go out and do our best. We practiced hard this week and we'll see what happens."

DOUBLE PLAY: The Crystal River girls (7-9) have been led by senior Elizabeth Walling at No. 2 singles and sophomore Scarlet McKethan at No. 4.

The pair also has played well together at No. 2 doubles.

"Scarlet has played very consistently," Pirates coach Laura Flanagan said. "She has forced several three-set matches and pulled them out.

"I think she'll definitely pull them out at districts. Elizabeth knows this is her senior year and her last time to do it. I think she's really going to fight for it."

BALANCING ACT: The Lecanto boys are the top seed in the district, but that's nothing new.

The Panthers entered last year's tournament 17-0. They finished second to Citrus.

"I like my chances this year," Panthers coach Lindsay Rodriguez said. "I have a well-rounded team. I think we have a fair chance of doing well."

Lecanto is 12-2, 8-0 against 2A-6 teams.

The Panthers have put up impressive numbers. No. 1 Avash Rao is 6-4, No. 3 Cyprian Rodriguez is 14-0, No. 4 Ravi Parikh is 13-1 and No. 5 Louis Ottino is 12-2.

"If the guys play up to form, stay put and show up, we should do fine," the coach said. "But luck of the draw and seeding will matter."

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