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Area teams put talent to test

Published May 6, 2003

They play some pretty good baseball over there in St. Johns County. How it compares to Citrus County will be seen today during the first round of the Class 3A playoffs.

Crystal River plays host to St. Augustine and Citrus is at St. Augustine Nease, both at 7 p.m.

Nease (17-11) won the District 5 tournament with a 7-4 victory against St. Augustine on Thursday. The Panthers were 4-9 but now are 17-11 after winning 13 of their last 15 games. Two of those victories came against Jacksonville Wolfson, the top-ranked team in last week's Class 5A poll.

Playing squads from the baseball-rich Jacksonville and Gainesville areas has helped Nease prepare for the playoffs, coach Kevin Fagan said.

"You name the team, we've played them in the area," Fagan said.

Pitching for the Panthers today will be Tom Plower (6-4, 2.35 ERA) or Andy Warren (5-3 with 2 saves, 74 strikeouts in 52 innings), both seniors.

The Panthers' offense is led by junior infielder Chase Fontaine, hitting .432 with six home runs. Sophomore catcher/outfielder Chris Warren (.438, 16 RBIs) and his brother, Andy, a shortstop batting .380 with 14 RBIs and 4 homers, are key contributors.

Three other seniors play prominent roles: first baseman Nick Cummings (.280, 8 RBIs), infielder Phil Hebel, (.230, 15 RBIs) and designated hitter Jared Huggett (.312 with 6 RBIs.)

"We're just like everybody else, we hit in the top part of our lineup," Fagan said. "You get down to the bottom and you hope for good things."

St. Augustine (20-7) started the season a blistering 12-0 before cooling off.

In early April, the Yellow Jackets were 15-1 and No. 1 in the state. But then they played Jacksonville Bishop Kenny, ranked first in Class 4A, and Jacksonville Arlington Country Day, No. 2 in 2A.

To make matters worse, the week St. Augustine got its top ranking, three starters went down.

"We went through a time where we had to overcome some obstacles that were off the field," coach P.J. Grall said. "We've done a good job of rebounding from it."?

Starting pitcher Aaron Jackson is a junior right-hander with a 7-2 record and 1.40 ERA. He hits .318.

Senior second baseman Andy Garrett is batting .388 with 7 doubles and 22 RBIs, and utility player Kenny Ray has a .367 average with 7 home runs and 29 RBIs. Catcher Andy White hits .292 with four homers, and shortstop Tyler Burnett averages .293.

"We don't have to hang our hat on one person to perform to be successful," Grall said.

The Jackets, making their first state playoff appearance in 11 years, were the top seed in the District 5 tourney. However, St. Augustine almost did not make it, going into extra innings with St. Augustine Menendez in the semifinals.

"The kids were disappointed with not winning the district championship game, but they are focused in on what our goal is," Crall said. "That's to get as far as we can in the playoffs."

[Last modified May 12, 2003, 07:33:29]

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