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Solid pitching and hitting will help against teams that paint a target on Ridgewood's back.
By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 2, 2003
NEW PORT RICHEY -- The sign hangs from Ridgewood's scoreboard, a permanent fixture of the Rams' memorable postseason run: 2002 CLASS 4A STATE FINALISTS.
But when Larry Beets sees his players gazing toward the outfield, he doesn't want them reminiscing. He wants them realizing that every opponent will see that sign too, and hope to make that success a thing of the past.
"That sign means people are going to expect you as an individual to perform better," said Beets, excited about his 20th season at Ridgewood. "They're going to assume you went absolutely nuts and worked it nonstop in the offseason. The proof is going to be in the pudding."
The Rams lost two seniors from last season's 27-8 team, but they were the nearly irreplaceable kind: Pitchers Ronny Lowe and Richie Hittel weren't just aces, they were inspiring leaders. The task of filling their shoes starts with toeing the pitcher's rubber, and senior right-hander Matt Laliberte inherits the challenge of being No. 1.
"I'm very comfortable with the pressure on my shoulders," said Laliberte, who opened the season with a five-inning, two-hit shutout of Lecanto, striking out nine and walking none. "I play better when it's like that. If we stick together and play as a team, I think we'll have a good chance to go to the final four again."
When Laliberte looks at the sign under the scoreboard, he thinks of others that could be hanging with it. The Rams didn't win their district tournament last season and finished second to Pasco in the conference, so Ridgewood is a team that reached the state championship game and still has unfinished business in its own county.
"We'd like to win the conference, but we'd rather win districts," said Laliberte, noting that Ridgewood's postseason success came despite playing all its playoff games on the road.
Laliberte won four games as a sophomore and went 5-3 last season, striking out 52 batters in 42 innings. He possesses an excellent curveball paired with a fastball Beets deemed "sneaky."
"He's worked extremely hard, went to four or five different camps this summer to enhance his credibility," Beets said. "He's won some games for us in the last two years, but now he has to throw against the big boys all the time."
Laliberte is an imposing 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds. He can focus almost exclusively on his pitching, as Lowe didn't bat last season as the Rams' ace. "He can swing the bat, but we need his arm and then we need him to rest," said Beets, who will carry 18 players, his largest squad ever. "We've got to have that pitcher ready to go. Somebody else will pick up the slack at the plate, but we want to make sure that arm stays healthy."
After Laliberte, Beets will turn to senior Lee Krieg, who missed the playoff run last season when he was dismissed from the team, and junior Erik Bua, who was called up from the junior varsity for the postseason last year. Anthony Redmond, who pitched 21/3 innings in the regular season last year, is the first left-handed option.
Offensively, the Rams are loaded, missing only Hittel's spark at the top of the lineup. Josh Le'Roy will lead off, followed by rightfielder Pat Potter, who sat out last season but played as a sophomore. The powerful bat of Monte Werner, who led the team with six home runs and 42 RBIs last season, is back, with junior third baseman Aaron McLamar batting cleanup.
John Servidio and Danny Lotz, who hit key home runs in the postseason run, will bat fifth and sixth, and younger players such as sophomore second baseman Jon Koenigsfeld will step into larger roles.
Beets said the team won't talk much about last season's finish, neither the unbelievable upset of an undefeated Dunedin ranked No. 1 nationally to reach the championship game, nor the humbling 13-0 loss that followed at the hands of Jacksonville Bishop Kenny. "It's not about trying to match last year," he said. "It's about going out to show you have improved as a player and a person. We asked the seniors, 'What will the legacy be this year?' The teams we face, they've been wanting to beat us for a long time. You want to go into a season knowing every time you play a team, you're getting a different team than most teams see. We'll have some fun with it."