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Countryside's new attitude starts with Spence's smile

By JOHN SCHWARB, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 2, 2002

To say Bree Spence was all smiles on the mound yet all business as she mowed down opposing hitters with ease en route to a state title is simplistic.

Sure, the meat of that statement stands -- this pitcher had a lot to be happy about while compiling a 24-1 record and leading Countryside to its first state title -- but to imply any ease in the feat doesn't do the sophomore justice.

Like a swan swimming across a pond, Spence appeared flawless, but below the surface worked frantically to arrive at her destination, one that was all the more challenging considering she had to fight through the wake of her predecessor.

Once again, she was just a sophomore, and not one content to feel her way through a first season as a young ace, winning a few and losing a few while looking toward her upperclassman years.

Spence felt she was capable of more. She was right.

"I had a lot of drive, a lot of goals set for myself," Spence said. "I wanted to break records and set records. It was good for me, but also good for my team."

With Spence on the mound for nearly all the Cougars' key games, including each one in the playoffs, Countryside had a season for the ages. The team finished 33-1 with a Class 5A championship, and this week claimed the No. 1 spot in two national polls.

Spence's contribution? The near-perfect record, a 0.08 ERA (two earned runs in 169 innings), 246 strikeouts and five shutouts in the state playoffs.

Such an effort earned Spence Times Player of the Year honors, marking the fourth consecutive year a Countryside pitcher has won the award. The three prior times, Crystal Crews claimed the award, all while Spence watched and imagined.

"Crystal has always been a really great friend of mine," Spence said. "I would come to the games, and finally one time (as an eighth-grader), she pulled me over and said, "Hey, coach (Scott) Kitchen, this is my little stud.'

"I guess it was true."

As a freshman, Spence was primarily a designated hitter, earning first-team all-county honors with a .430 average. She pitched occasionally, going 7-0 with a 0.16 ERA.

This year, she was handed the ball as the Cougars' ace, and the face of the team began to change. Crews was an intimidator on the field, with a stare as dangerous as her riseball. Spence brought neither, preferring to keep the ball down and at least show a laid-back demeanor.

The pitching style worked, as Spence got more than her share of strikeouts and an outstanding infield gobbled up the frequent ground balls. The personality began to permeate the team as well, creating a better atmosphere than the one on Spence's freshman team.

The 2001 Cougars were undefeated and ranked No. 1 nationally until the region semifinals, when they lost to Naples. In a 5-0 season-ending defeat, Crews was touched for 10 hits and the defense committed six errors.

"A lot of girls butted heads (on that team)," Spence said. "I think a lot of the girls got really big heads from all that publicity, being ranked No. 1. We definitely didn't finish there."

This year, Countryside lost early, removing poll pressures, then picked up momentum as the season wore into April and May. The face of the team was Spence's, smiling and winning all the way to the title.

"I think I kept them together a little better," Spence said. "It wasn't just me, but we were so much more close-knit. I mean, a whole team of teenage girls is a really hard thing.

"There was some stuff off the field, but as soon as we stepped on the field and we crossed that chalk line, it was just us. Nothing else in the world mattered."

Throughout the playoffs, even after a no-hitter in the region final against Naples, Spence maintained her sophomore smile and gee-whiz demeanor. She blazed through opposing lineups (nine strikeouts in a row and 11 out of 12 batters faced in the state semifinal against Durant), but never forgot everyone else.

"She's more concerned about the overall goal, which is to win the game," Kitchen said. "I can't think of anybody that had a negative word. Nobody ever seems to have a problem with her."

Opposing hitters excepted, of course. But Spence wants to be ready for them again next year, as she is developing a riseball and staying sharp by playing with the Clearwater Bombers club team.

"I'm definitely going to have to stay on my toes next year," Spence said. "There's a lot of teams gunning for us, I think we made a lot of teams mad."

If it's possible to be mad at someone who's always smiling.

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