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Cougars have the team, maybe not the talent

By MIKE READLING, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2002

All Durant coach Gary Graham wants is 14 more innings.

All Durant coach Gary Graham wants is 14 more innings.

It's really not that much when one stops and thinks about it.

Two full games, 42 more outs.

That's all it would take to provide the difference between two pretty successful seasons and a record-setting one.

The past two years, Durant has rolled through the regular season, bobbed and weaved through the district and first two games of the regional tournaments, and then come crashing back to earth in the region final.

In 2000, it was a 3-1 loss to defending state champion Merritt Island that ended the Cougars' season at 20-9. Last year, a 7-1 loss to Venice dropped the record to 21-7.

The 2002 version of the Cougars is similar to the last two. There is plenty of pitching, some decent hitting and a good mix of players. The question is can chemistry, fastballs and steady hitting overcome talent?

"The last two years we've been in the region final, knocking on the door," Graham said. "We may not be the most talented team in the state but we seem to play well together. There are a lot of similarities with the past couple of teams. We preach pitching and defense always. We've never been a powerhouse on offense."

If there is a difference with the Cougars this year it might be the fact they are actually better.

They enter the Class 5A, District 7 tournament as the No. 1 seed, having gone 8-0 against district opponents with an overall record of 20-4. The Cougars feature three strong starting pitchers and four players who are hitting over .330. The relief pitching has been outstanding and defensively the Cougars are as strong as any team in the county.

"We've played very well. We've won a lot of close games but we've been streaky at times," Graham said. "We've pitched fairly well and played defense and that's what we need to do. We need to get some clutch hits though, No. 1, and some contributions from the bottom of the order and we need to play sound defense."

If one strength stands out above the others, it is pitching.

The team ERA is under 2.00 and Durant has recorded four shutouts and a no-hitter. Ross Jackson, the author of the no-hitter, is 6-0 with a 0.96 ERA. He is followed by Ryan Ross (6-1, 2.20 ERA) and Steve Lee (5-1, 2.00).

Mike Maslar is the lefty on the staff, carrying a 1-1 record in four starts while John Gawron is the closer with a 4-1 record and four saves.

"We feel real confident on our pitching staff," Graham said.

But you can't win without hitting and Durant has certainly done that this season.

Catcher Mike Grace leads the county with seven home runs and has 24 RBIs. Gawron, Kyle Adkins, Jose Hernandez and Brian Nichols are all batting above .330 and provide the majority of Durant's offense.

With all that in front of him, one might think Graham has gone ahead and reserved a spot in the state tournament, which is less than a month away at Legends Field. That's not completely true.

"We have great senior leadership and a ton of confidence going in but we're really trying not to look to state because we have our work cut out for us Tuesday," Graham said. "We can't afford to give up anything. We're taking this inning by inning just like we have all year."

This time, he's hoping for 14 more to concentrate on.

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