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West Preview: Could this be the season the west finally fights back?

An eastside team has won the SAC in each of its 11 seasons.

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2002

An eastside team has won the SAC in each of its 11 seasons.

WEST OF U.S. 41 -- Hope springs eternal this time of year. But this season west-county teams are armed with more than hope.

Returning veterans, talented up-and-comers, new coaches and new offensive schemes are generating excitement for Gulf, Hudson, Mitchell, Ridgewood and River Ridge, programs that have never won a title in the 11-year history of the Sunshine Athletic Conference.

"I think all the westside teams definitely have reason to hope for a higher caliber of play," River Ridge coach Mike DeGennaro said.

Does that mean the west is ready to challenge the east for conference and district titles? For playoff positioning?

That is still an immense task, new Ridgewood coach Troy Cornwell said, but one westside teams are better prepared to tackle.

"I've watched a lot of film this summer of last year, and I think everybody is optimistic," Cornwell said. "I think the west side has a little bit better talent, but the east side does, too.

"You're only as good as the teams you play. We're excited, we look forward to the challenge, but it's still going to be tough."

Hope alone won't do it. Here's what might:

At Gulf, coach Keith Newton hopes the Spread-I offense, installed by Bucs alum and former Florida lineman Jimmy Watson, will give defenses fits and his team an edge. The Bucs expect junior quarterback Jeff Blanchette to be able to run and gun.

Hudson coach Terry Voyles has a deep backfield led by returning fullback Kenny Eva. The Cobras went a surprising 4-6 last year, 3-1 against west-county foes. Quarterback Josh Bunting could give Hudson a new passing dimension, while linebackers Jimmy Schumacher and Walter Truzack bolster a rebuilt defense.

Coach Scott Schmitz' Mitchell program is in its second varsity year, returning 24 seniors from the inaugural 1-9 season. The backfield is led by brothers Reggie and Ricky Moise at tailback and fullback. A new quarterback, Donnie Josephik, runs the Wing-T, and Schmitz hopes a new attitude runs through the defense, led by 6-foot-1, 270-pound tackle Brandon Thomas.

Cornwell has taken over at Ridgewood, where he's built the new Power-I offense around the backfield of bruising 6-foot-4, 240-pound Georgia Tech signee Adamm Oliver and fleet Sean Jester. Oliver will also be one of the county's premier defensive lineman at end. Baseball standout Monte Werner gives the team a boost at fullback.

DeGennaro hopes River Ridge can improve on last year's 3-7 record with a potentially powerful offensive line and some tough running between the tackles by fullbacks Anthony Daugherty, Michael Dix and Alan Minichino. The offense finds speed in Jahmaal Osbourne and Chris Malone. Quarterback Ryan Mistal has added weapons in tight end Danny Grant and 6-7 wideout Alex Wilson.

"I've heard good things out of Gulf and Ridgewood and everybody," Voyles said. "This year, I'm excited."

But that excitement won't mean anything, especially against the east, if teams don't execute the fundamentals, Schmitz said.

"I think any time you've got new coaches and guys doing new things offensively, doing something different, I'm sure there's going to be some excitement," Schmitz said. "But no matter what you're doing, it still comes down to blocking and tackling. If we block and tackle better than those other guys, than we win."

The east side teams, Land O'Lakes, Pasco, Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills, have taken notice.

"If they work hard, they can beat two, even three of us," Pasco coach Ricky Thomas said. "I think anybody can be beaten on any given night, if a team plays hard for four quarters."

Newton said the biggest challenge westside teams face is turning excitement into reality.

"I know everybody starts with a fresh attitude and a fresh dedication," Newton said. "You work hard and you hope that injuries don't catch up to you, and you get teams as prepared as you can to play teams like Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills.

"Just like last year we're starting with a new attitude, the kids are excited about the new offense and we believe in ourselves. We just have to see how the season goes."

Many have not gone well. Hudson's last winning season was 23 years ago, Ridgewood's 17 years and Gulf's nine. River Ridge enjoyed four winning seasons in the 1990s, but its last came in 1999.

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