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The road to Tampa: Ridgewood

A high seed is not a guarantee for success. The games still have to be settled on the field.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2002

Larry Beets entered last year's district tournament as the lowest seed and won.

The Ridgewood coach has been a top seed and lost, and nearly every scenario in between. His lesson learned after 24 seasons of coaching county teams is that seeds are for spitting.

"We've been the 2 seed, the 3 seed, every seed there is," Beets said.

"You play your game, you don't panic, you try to get your bunts down and hit the ball, and that's all you can do."

The Rams (22-6) enter this week's Class 4A District 8 tournament with a first-round bye, thanks to an 11-1 regular season.

Last year's surprising district title -- his third in 19 years at Ridgewood -- was made possible by two huge pitching performances: a no-hitter by Dave Hancock and a one-hit shutout by Ronnie Lowe.

Hancock graduated, but Ridgewood returns the county's top 1-2 punch on the mound. Lowe is 9-1 with a county-best 0.69 ERA and 99 strikeouts, and not far behind is the team's only other senior, Richie Hittel, a respectable 6-1 with a 0.92 ERA himself.

One win and Ridgewood is in, but the Rams, like everyone else, are out with one loss.

Ridgewood's semifinal opponent will be either Tarpon Springs, which handed the Rams their only district loss, or Land O'Lakes, which lost by a 2-1 margin in its one meeting with Ridgewood this season.

"Any time you get to districts, they'll be somebody from some team that will step up," Beets said.

"Maybe he's had a mediocre season statistically, but somebody will step up with a big hit or a strong game pitching, and you don't know who that will be."

Any team challenging the Rams for the district crown will have to do so with three starters in four days, but the tournament has pitching depth -- Hudson has Rob Petrucci (4-3), Bryan Strawser (6-2) and Shannon Eva (4-2); River Ridge has two solid options in Justin Roth (5-5) and Brandon Dellechiaie(4-4).

One team Ridgewood doesn't have to worry about is Pasco, ranked ninth in Class 3A and the top seed in its district tournament in Mulberry. The Pirates (22-4) haven't lost in a month and, like Ridgewood, have only one district loss.

Pasco coach Ricky Giles has pitching depth to rival Ridgewood's -- left-handers Chris Nyman (7-1, 1.91 ERA) and Matt Prowant (6-0, 2.12) join right-hander Matt Smith (7-2, 3.00) as a trio that has combined to strike out 195 batters, while walking only about a third of that number.

What the rest of the district fears most, however, are the Pirates' bats, good enough to field a team batting average of .367, a figure only seven other individual batters in the county can boast.

The top half of the Pasco batting order -- Orlando Rosales, Prowant, Lee Cruz and Anton Standifer -- all rank in the county's top six in batting average and have combined to belt 20 home runs this season.

The county's three playoff teams all lost in the first round last year, a drought that could end in the next two weeks.

The county's best have their sights not only on district titles but extended playoff runs, something that can't be done without a little luck along the way.

"It comes to depend on who's on that night," Giles said. "If we continue producing runs, if you can do that, things will happen for you.

"The kids, day in and day out, are gaining more confidence at the plate. But it depends on who shows up, who wants it and how the breaks go."

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