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Keeping an eye on the rival

The Mitchell Mustangs need a victory on Wednesday night to secure a third crack at the Land O'Lakes Gators.

Published February 15, 2004

TRINITY - The three-team district is high school basketball's version of a cage match, its competitors cramped into close quarters. The positive spin is that only one team goes home without making the playoffs; the down side is the potential of being that team.

With River Ridge struggling to a 3-19 mark this season, Land O'Lakes and Mitchell have spent three months in relative confidence they can make the regional playoffs. That made a perennial goal for any team - winning a district title - all the more huge in measuring a season's success.

Land O'Lakes won both meetings with Mitchell during the season, earning the district's top seed, a first-round bye and an automatic playoff berth. It also left the Mustangs all the more hungry to exact revenge in a third meeting, which Mitchell can advance to by beating River Ridge for a third time Wednesday. The Mustangs' most recent loss to Land O'Lakes was more frustrating, with the Gators stifling Mitchell and holding the Mustangs to 29 points.

"Awful," first-year coach Andy Schmitz said. "We couldn't shoot to save our lives. We picked a bad time to play one of our poorest games of the year."

Mitchell (13-9) shot 23 percent from the field, with the slump spread evenly among its players, but just when Schmitz was worried his team was faltering down the stretch, the Mustangs pulled off a 69-62 win against Clearwater Central Catholic on Tuesday.

Senior guard Jeremy Hopper, who needs three points to become the second player in Mitchell history to score 1,000, led the Mustangs with 19. Mitchell had its usual scoring balance, with Mitch Foster adding 17 and D.J. Crosby 12.

"Hopefully that put us back on track," said Schmitz, whose team can earn its first playoff berth Wednesday, joining several Mustangs teams in a breakout season for the third-year school.

Crosby, who ranks third in the county in assists and second in free-throw accuracy as a sophomore, has a chance to put a young Mitchell team on the map.

The Gators counter with senior Brett Ruvolo, who is second in the county with 2.7 steals a game and will try to work the ball inside to forward Drew Weatherford and 6-foot-8 center Caz Piurowski.

Land O'Lakes (14-10) will compete in the region playoffs for the fourth time in five years, but the district setup affords them a real chance to play at home and perhaps pick up the playoff victory that has eluded the Gators in its four previous postseason appearances.

[Last modified February 15, 2004, 01:15:45]

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