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Rivals raise stakes

Countryside, Palm Harbor U. face off with aces on mound and region title on line.

LAURA LEE
Published May 13, 2004

Yes, there will be plenty more Countryside and Palm Harbor U. games to come.

No doubt they will be just as compelling and riveting as games past. But there's something different about Friday's matchup.

For the first time, the Cougars and Hurricanes meet in the region final, the game that earns the winner a trip to the Class 5A state Final Four next week. Eyes inevitably will be fixed on the final matchup between two of the best pitchers Pinellas County has seen.

Countryside's Bree Spence (20-2) and PHU's Dani Hofer (19-2) are the centers of strong teams vying for a state title. They've been at the top of their games and the top of the county for the past few years. Both had breakout sophomore seasons. In 2002, Spence helped lead the Cougars to a state title. Last season, Hofer was remarkable, striking out 254 in 124 innings with a 0.17 ERA.

The aces are often compared but are little alike. Hofer is a junior leader on a young team with one senior on its roster. Spence is a veteran playing aside five other seniors who know what it's like to win a state championship.

Hofer has no problem sharing the load with her teammates.

"I don't think Dani ever thinks that she has to go out and carry the load," PHU coach Chuck Poetter said. "Dani figures she does her job and the rest of the team takes care of theirs."

Spence often takes it all upon herself and claims responsibility for a loss, such as after the Cougars dropped their first game of the season to Seminole.

"She got down on herself," Countryside coach Kaylyn Bayly said. "She felt like she had to do everything."

It has been a comeback season of sorts for Spence.

Last season she struggled a bit while recovering from a broken wrist. She kept changing her style and switched pitching coaches.

This season she fought off self-doubt. Dealing with problems more mental than physical, she managed a regular-season ERA of 0.26 and 20 wins. Three of the Cougars' four postseason games have been shutouts.

"Last year I had a really hard time coming back confidence-wise," Spence said. "It's hard to perform when you're used to succeeding. I was so worried about screwing up, I wasn't happy when I was doing it right."

For Hofer, it's business as usual. She has even bigger numbers than last season: 330 strikeouts, 72 in the postseason's four games and 33 in her past 34 batters. As stifling as she can be on the mound, Hofer knows pitching alone doesn't make a win.

"I know the only way to win a game is with a runner touching home plate," Hofer said.

Hofer and Spence have played major roles in their teams' scoring, particularly against each other. In the Cougars' 2-0 win at PHU in April, Spence hit a two-run homer off Hofer. In the district final at Eddie Moore Complex, Hofer reversed the roles, hitting a two-run double off Spence during the Hurricanes' 4-1 win.

"It's not like they're one-dimensional," Poetter said. "They're both good players."

"They fight and battle back and forth every year," Bayly said. "They're both tremendous athletes."

In past meetings, pitchers have dominated contests so overwhelmingly that offense has been minimal and many of the games have gone well into extra innings. But this season, the teams have scored on hitting, not just errors, and ending things in a somewhat timely fashion. Countryside won two regular-season games over the Hurricanes in seven innings. The district final, however, went 11 in favor of PHU.

This game is the most meaningful in the legacy of Countryside-PHU games. Both Hofer and Spence said they're going to play it like any other game, but they still recognize its importance.

"It's a big deal," Spence said. "It's for the big money."

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