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TAMPA - It's hard enough playing a team three times in one season. Four times is almost unheard of. But when the opening pitch sails across the plate today in the Class 6A region championship, it will be the fourth time Gaither and Countryside have met.
And in case anyone forgot, these squads are not the best of friends.
"We don't exactly get along, " said Morgan Grove, Gaither's ace who has beaten the Cougars twice this season and will be on the mound tonight. "But we're glad to get them again."
Gaither (23-6) may have thought it was done with Countryside (23-5) this season.
The Cowboys slipped past the Cougars 4-3 April 20 in the Class 6A, District 7 championship when an illegal pitch was called on Countryside pitcher Desiree Baker in the sixth inning, sending Katie Clemente home for the winning run.
Countryside coach Kaylyn Bayly said she was disappointed the game wasn't decided on the field. Gaither wasn't thrilled either, but gladly took the crown.
"We didn't really like to win that way either, " Grove said. "But a win is a win."
And that win extracted a measure of revenge for the Cowboys, who were shellacked 14-0 by the Cougars during the last month of the regular season. After the district title game loss, Countryside won two games on the road and must play another away from home - at its No. 1 rival no less.
"They (Countryside) have the experience with their senior class, " Gaither coach Al Alcala said. "Our team is younger and not as experienced."
The Cowboys are even less experienced after senior second baseman Megan Faxas went down with a hand injury in the district semifinals. Still, the Cowboys are potent with Grove pitching (18-2, 0.73 ERA) and the bats of Megan McGrath (.532 batting average), Katie Forbes (.453) and Lauren Elgar (.429).
Countryside counters with Baker's dominant pitching and offensive stalwarts GiOnna DiSalvatore (UCLA signee) and Alyssa Allbritten.
"This game will come down to execution, " Alcala said. "Our pitching, hitting and defense all have to be great."
And playing each other again for the fourth time?
"It's hard to beat a team over and over, " Grove said. "But this is win or go home. They want us bad and we want them. This means more than the other games in the past."