OUT OF THE SHADOWS
By STEVE LEE
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2001
ZEPHYRHILLS -- Russell Hartley contributed just one home run to Zephyrhills' state-record 63 last season.
Former teammate John McClellan called that two-run shot over the leftfield fence the most impressive he'd seen all season. After all, it did help the Bulldogs defeat district foe Tarpon Springs 6-2.
"He said that?" Bulldogs coach Bruce Cimorelli said. "I don't know about that, but it was a line drive right over the fence."
Hartley, a right-handed hitter, already has matched last year's output for home runs, which is nice. But the line drives are what thrill him the most.
"In years past, he's been more of a free swinger," Cimorelli said of the senior. "This year, he has more discipline."
After a summer in the batting cage with Zephyrhills first baseman Tyson Prickett, Hartley's diligent work on his swing has paid off in the form of a .382 batting average.
"He wasn't turning real hard on the backside," Prickett said. "He had a tendency to loop his hands."
Now, Hartley keeps his hands level as he drives them through the strike zone. And that's important because he must reach base more often as the leadoff hitter for the Bulldogs (4-3). His new role as team catalyst is in contrast to his role as the ninth hitter last season when he averaged .359 in 39 at-bats.
"I don't like (leading off) as much as batting ninth, because you've got to be more selective," Hartley said. "You've got to take a pitch."
With 12 runs scored, 10 RBI and five stolen bases to go along with his high batting average, Hartley likely has found a permanent home at the top of the lineup. "He's our table-setter," Cimorelli said. "He gets things going."
Hartley is primarily a second baseman but is versatile enough to play third (where he backed up Mike Stepp last year) and shortstop when Danny Wardell pitches. Hartley also has pitched some.
"He's just a good athlete," Cimorelli said. "He's doing everything for us."
Hartley is "a scrapper," Cimorelli added, "a throwback" who leads by example.
"At practice, he gives 110 percent," Bulldogs outfielder Kyle Watson said. "In games, he gives more than that.
Added teammate John Hengel: "When he's on the field, he owns it."
"He's always cut up," said Watson, pointing to Hartley's scraped legs as the stocky 5-foot-8 infielder pulls down his knee-high black socks.
Although he prefers to lead by example, Hartley realizes he must speak up on occasion.
"If he speaks, the kids listen to him," Cimorelli said.
A tri-captain along with Wardell and Prickett, Hartley keeps things in perspective in his conversations with teammates.
"I keep everybody having fun. I keep them loose," Hartley said. "The other two (Wardell and Prickett) keep them in line.
"I get on to them as well, then I come back with a joke; keep it fun."
Hartley listed the home run against Tarpon Springs as one of last season's highlights, but his ultimate thrill was playing in the Class 4A state tournament at Legends Field in Tampa.
"Going to Legends Field; that beats anything," Hartley said.
The only thing that could top that experience is playing at the next level. Hartley and Cimorelli concur that the hard-nosed second baseman could wind up at Hillsborough Community College.
The school's coaches have been out to John F. Clements Field to watch Hartley, Wardell and Watson, Cimorelli noted.
Meanwhile, Hartley realizes he must continue to make the most of his senior season if he is to continue playing ball in college.
"This year," he said, "I'm not in anybody's shadow."
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