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New players look for old result

Countryside, the defending Class 5A state champion, has inserted some new faces into its starting lineup.

By JOHN SCHWARB, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 4, 2003

CLEARWATER -- Gone is the sure-handed second baseman with the hot bat. The slugging centerfielder, gone. The longtime coach, a fixture since the slow-pitch days, he's gone, too.

Heck, even a perfect record, that's gone, and the season's just more than two weeks old.

Things have changed a bit for Countryside. Yet it's far from a forgone conclusion the Cougars will not defend the Class 5A title.

"Do I expect it? No," junior pitcher Bree Spence said. "Then again, we didn't expect it last year."

The Cougars put their fate largely in Spence's hands last season, and the right-hander delivered, collecting 24 of the team's 33 wins, including shutouts in all five playoff victories on the way to the title and two national No. 1 rankings.

But nearly half of the reliable starters around her graduated.

Kattrina Dowd, the county's leading hitter last year at .596 and a player Palm Harbor U. coach Chuck Poetter said was "the only player we game-planned around," vacated her post at second base and is at South Florida.

Carly Brieske, centerfielder and team leader in RBIs with 31, is playing for Florida State. Also departed is regular first baseman Brooke Johannessen and third baseman Heather Sismilich.

Maybe Scott Kitchen knew what he was doing when he retired after 23 years as coach. New coach Kaylyn Bayly came in during winter conditioning. And instead of finding a reliable core of returning seniors to provide leadership, she found one -- catcher Erin Brunt.

"We lost three of the four pretty strong seniors, both by example and with their mouths," Bayly said. "I guess it would make it a little more difficult because you don't have that leadership out there."

Bayly said the transition has been good as several Cougars she also coached in volleyball made her welcome. And as a former college softball player, she is well-versed in the game.

She certainly knew starting the season with the defending champion's bull's-eye plus a half-new lineup would not mean automatic wins, especially with a tougher schedule.

Last year's team started 17-0, largely against weaker foes. This year's Cougars threw themselves into the fire right away and didn't walk away unscathed, losing 4-3 to Class 2A champion Orlando Lake Highland Prep. Spence gave up three runs in the final inning.

"They needed to see that," Bayly said. "I want to win, but we're going to do some other things, figure out what we need to do to get there. If a loss can be positive, it was."

Among the newcomers to the starting lineup are senior Jenna Schrecongost at second base (returning to the team after a year off), sophomore Samantha Becker in leftfield and Kourtney Thurber at first base. Sophomores Kira Hall and Sarah Yates are taking turns at third base.

But skeptics, take heed. Countryside won its title last year with five sophomores in the championship game lineup. The faces unfamiliar now might be plenty familiar by May along with the returning players who experienced last year's ride.

"They want to get back to where they were. It's a tough task," Bayly said.

"This is a new year. We have to start our own thing."

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