Camaraderie carries Knights
By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
NEW PORT RICHEY -- Mandi Petrella has been on talented River Ridge teams before, but the reason she's confident in this one has nothing to do with hard-swinging hitters, eight players who play club ball or a 24-2 record.
"We get along so much better this season," said Petrella, one of two Knights seniors. "Everything runs so smoothly that it's the perfect image of a team.
"I've played on a lot of teams that were talented but didn't play together. I don't know why it's clicked the way it has, but it has."
River Ridge and Mitchell both play in region semifinals Saturday at Mitchell, and could meet in the final in the evening. The region champion moves on to next week's state final four in Lakeland.
"I'd much rather be here than Gainesville or Middleburg," said River Ridge coach Heidi Castelamare, whose team plays at 2 p.m. against Middleburg. "We've gone into Gainesville the last couple of years, and it's definitely an advantage for them.
"We can get a lot more fans at Mitchell. A lot of kids have said they'll come, and they're starting to jump on the bandwagon. That's great -- it happened last year in softball (at the state final four), and they had great support."
Mitchell (23-6) has a tough opponent in No. 3 Gainesville, which eliminated the Knights in last year's region semifinal. The Mustangs are making their playoff debut, while the Purple Hurricanes have reached the final four the past five seasons. That's not to say all the Mustangs are unfamiliar with Gainesville. Two years ago, junior Katelen Dixon was a freshman at Countryside when Gainesville beat her team in a state semifinal en route to the Class 5A crown.
Coach Joe Dixon said his team's priority is to return to its former level of play after needing three games to beat Clermont East Ridge on Tuesday. The Mustangs were runners-up in the district and conference, but to play with Gainesville (27-4), they must play better. Dixon is confident they can.
"We played a hope defense at times: We hoped (East Ridge would) make a lot more mistakes than we did, and in that second game, they didn't," Dixon said. "Gainesville will bring a different game on Saturday, but we'll be ready."
River Ridge faces a district runner-up in Middleburg (17-14), but a runner-up who has advanced to the region finals the past three years.
Middleburg was up a game on Gainesville in last week's district final when its starting middle blocker tore the meniscus in her knee, ending her season. Her replacement is freshman Sarah Williams, but as is the case with her team, underestimating her might be dangerous.
Mitchell and River Ridge will need to be at the top of their games to get past Gainesville. All four region teams have the talent to advance, but chemistry could be the difference.
"It just leaves you more confident going into this," Petrella said. "It's every senior's dream to go through and finish strong, and I've seen that not every team even makes it this far. It's a great feeling to know you might come out on top."
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