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Getting in swing of things

Warriors' third-year baseball team is hoping to give school another successful program.

By KRISTEN LEIGH PORTER
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 30, 2003


HOMOSASSA -- It is a beautiful Friday afternoon at Dazzy Vance Field, and Seven Rivers Christian is playing the varsity baseball team from Montverde Academy.

Sophomore Jason Richardson, on the mound for the winless Warriors, is having trouble getting out of the inning.

Coach Jamie Richard, wearing a shirt that says "Championships Start With Defense," comes out on the field to talk to his pitcher and the other players.

"You can do it, Jason," yells one member of a small but supportive crowd.

Although the squad allowed 10 runs in the first two innings, its players aren't the Bad News Bears. The members are more like the Good News Grizzlies.

There is no one working the scoreboard, and that is not a bad thing considering the score reaches 15-0 in the fourth inning. But a double by Chris Oliver, his first of the season, drives in Seven Rivers' first run.

Before the fifth inning ends, the Warriors score five more runs to make it 15-6. The game will not be completed early due to the 10-run rule but will go the full seven innings. Elation runs through the crowd and dugout.

Seven Rivers ended up losing that March 21 game 20-6, and took spring break off last week. The Warriors are back in action 5:30 p.m. today at Mount Dora Bible.

Baseball is the youngest sport at Seven Rivers Christian, making its debut during the 2000-01 season. As such, it is enduring growing pains, and the team had just one victory last year.

There are five eighth-graders and a seventh-grader on a squad with no upperclassmen, and several players from last season did not return. Nearly half the members this year never had played organized ball before the season.

At times, Richard has had to create separate practices because the other half of the team has experience.

"You will always have people say, 'Well, you're a small school, maybe you shouldn't have started baseball in the spring,"' said Richard, who is in his first season.

"There's always a process of evaluating and justifying," he said. "Right now with the crop of eighth- and ninth-graders, that's a lot to build on."

With about 69 high school-aged students, Seven Rivers is among the smaller schools in Class A. Many Seven Rivers varsity teams routinely use junior high players in their line-ups.

Scott Jackson, the Dean of Faculty and Students at Seven Rivers Christian, said some programs have blossomed. The school's first varsity competition was in 1996-97, and team sports such as basketball and volleyball were the first to be successful.

"We had several years of real struggle, and our baseball and softball teams are going through that struggle," said Jackson, the acting athletic director this year.

An established track and field program competes in the spring, so numbers are low for same-season sports, including softball, which was added in 1999-2000. A minimum of nine players is needed on the field, and that is not accounting for relief pitching.

Richard would like a 15-member squad, but currently there is 11 on the team.

"Baseball does get the leftovers," Richard said. "It's the end of the year and the last season and basketball carries over."

Richardson and fellow sophomore Wesley Tubman are the Seven Rivers leaders based on seniority. Eighth-graders Drew Donavan and Charley Barclay play key roles along with newcomer Julian Cousinet. And Oliver, a freshman, is ever-improving.

Chad Peets is a freshman second baseman who has been playing 11 years. He is among the team's most experienced members and twice was on the Central Citrus All-Stars.

"All the teams there, you get drafted, you go to practice and they choose and it's all pretty well evenly matched," Peets said of his Little League experiences. "And you come here and many people quit just because of the record.

"Kids that come to our school see the record and they're like, 'Wow, you guys really stink', and they don't even bother coming out. It really hurts our team."

The Warriors started their inaugural season in 2001, going 4-8. They won just one game last year.

Taking over the reins was Richard, a 34-year-old lanky ex-pitcher who played at the University of Tennessee as a freshman before injuring his elbow.

The 6-foot-8 righty was a college roommate of former major-leaguer Greg McMichael, who pitched for four clubs before finishing his career with the Atlanta Braves in 2000.

Richard, also the school's new athletic director, held a call-out for interested players before Christmas break. When he saw there possibly would be no upperclassmen, he made the decision to pull out of the state series and Class A, District 7 competition. The Warriors are on a two-year probation and play a schedule comprised of half junior varsity games, like today's contest.

"Those kids are making great improvements, because it's so easy to improve on that low experience," Richard said.

Next year, Seven Rivers will continue to play junior varsity squads. Richard hopes to schedule the varsity teams of schools in the new district alignment, including Hernando Christian, that was set up for fall and spring sports.

Three years from now when the Warriors enter district play, Richard hopes they will be competing for a championship. Good pitching can make up a lot of ground quickly. Richard said because his knowledge was pitching-specific, he relies heavily on assistant coach Chuck Barclay to help with the hitting.

Richardson, on the mound against Montverde, is getting a good change-up and can strike out batters. He was relieved by Barclay, a lefty with a great pickoff move and the only player on the team who can throw a true curveball. Cody Swain is injured but pitches, as does Peets.

The low number of players does not leave room for injuries, especially to returning members. Peets was injured in the season opener and out three weeks and three days, but he came up with the first hit against Montverde in his first game back.

Peets said it takes a lot of team spirit to keep playing. "The kids that have played before know that just because you have a losing season, they can look back over the years and see how they got better."

Lori Peets, Chad's mom, was on the Central Citrus board of directors and has seen her share of his games. Peets keeps the book for the Warriors, and said at the beginning of the season she would record 20-plus errors during games that mostly would last five innings. The number of errors has dropped significantly.

"The younger ones have really started to improve," Lori said.

Richard knows his team needs a feeder program at the junior high level, or a junior varsity at the least. But that is far down the road.

The Warriors, without an on-campus facility, practice at Tidwell Field at Dean Hopkins Park, which is on the Key Training Center campus in Lecanto. That is where Seven Rivers previously played its home games, but this season Richard secured a county-owned and maintained field.

He said the school eventually would like to build athletic fields on land owned across Highway 44 from its campus in Lecanto, but that is far in the future. Right now, he needs a commitment from his players.

"They've got to make the decision -- the eighth-graders and ninth-graders now," Richard said. "They have to work hard and condition hard and use every minute of practice."

-- Editor's note: This is the first story in a two-part series about Seven Rivers Christian's athletic program.

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