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Knights weren't afraid to work

By STEVE LEE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2002

NEW PORT RICHEY -- All season long, River Ridge spoke of how fun Ernie Beck's practices were, what with the coach hauling out the Slip 'N Slide and incorporating games.

NEW PORT RICHEY -- All season long, River Ridge spoke of how fun Ernie Beck's practices were, what with the coach hauling out the Slip 'N Slide and incorporating games.

But missing grad night -- at Disney World no less -- for a practice?

The Royal Knights (31-3) unanimously opted to skip grad night. That included six seniors, who missed out on their last chance for a Magic Kingdom celebration with their classmates.

Practice paid off. A day after grad night came and went, River Ridge grabbed its first state playoff berth with its most lopsided playoff win, 13-2 over Green Cove Springs Clay in the Class 4A, Region 2 final.

"They'd rather practice. They love my practices," Beck said.

Hiding a rubber ball while pitching batting practice is one way Beck liked to "loosen it up.

"I know it sounds like it's all fun and games, but they work hard."

That hard work paid off in the form of the first playoff wins in the program's 11 seasons. And it nearly carried the Knights to a state championship. After three region victories and a 1-0, 10-inning thriller over Naples Barron Collier in the state semifinal, River Ridge lost Friday to Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, which captured its first state title.

As teary-eyed ballplayers gathered in the outfield at Ed Radice Park, Beck, in his eighth season as the Knights' coach, called his team "by far the best working group I've ever had.

"You were one step away this year. There's nobody from Pasco County since '92 (Ridgewood won the Class 3A state crown in 1992) to have come this far."

It all began last year, Beck said, when River Ridge lost 2-0 to Countryside in a region quarterfinal. The coach kept the scoresheet from that game and taped it to the dugout during the Knights' first few games this season.

"I really think it drove them," Beck said of the reminder of what could have been. "We talked about the state playoffs since Day 1."

With a 1-2 pitching punch of senior Christine Beck, the coach's daughter, and Kiki Von Holt, a sophomore transfer from East Lake, River Ridge reeled off nine shutouts. The duo went on to combine for a 29-3 record.

On the other side of the ledger, the Knights had a high-powered offense fueled by .400 hitters Beck (.405), junior shortstop Stefanie Simon (.412) and freshman rightfielder Stephanie Seaman (.403).

In all, seven players hit .299 or better, leading the Knights to a 139-42 scoring advantage.

River Ridge got contributions from everyone. Freshmen Janet Houck tripled in a region playoff game. Tricia Thomas homered in her first varsity at-bat as a pinch-hitter in a district final win over Land O'Lakes.

"I've talked about talent, talent is great," Beck said. "But you have to have a team that goes out as a team."

Perhaps the most unselfish player this season was senior Amy Cassell, who played leftfield in all 33 games but batted in less than half the games.

"Amy doesn't complain and she does a great job in leftfield," Beck said.

One player who did not bat, or play defense, in the season finale was senior third baseman Jill Hrovoski, hit by a pitch on the left thumb in the state semifinal.

"I wanted to play," Hrovoski said. "I really tried, but (the pain) was excruciating."

Appreciative of the efforts from his seniors, Beck had a message for the returners before the team disbanded Friday: "This is what we build on next year. Let's get here again."

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