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Royal Knights, Gators have shot at earning district titles

By STEVE LEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2000


NEW PORT RICHEY -- While some of their Sunshine Athletic Conference counterparts await the start of next week's Class 2A, District 7 tennis tournaments, four Pasco County schools get a head start on the post-season today.

The 3A-9 tourney for boys and girls begins at 8 a.m. for Gulf, Land O'Lakes, Ridgewood and host River Ridge thanks to next week's spring break for Pinellas County schools. Joining that foursome for the two-day tournament are Countryside, Dunedin and Palm Harbor University.

Rescheduling the tournament a week in advance, River Ridge coach Flo Massaro said, "stresses the coach out."

Perhaps even more stressful will be watching a hotly contested battle for the girls title between River Ridge, Countryside and Palm Harbor.

The Royal Knights (14-0) are coming off their first unbeaten regular season in school history, but that does not guarantee a tournament championship.

Palm Harbor has just one loss, which barely qualifies as a blemish on its record because that defeat was dealt by three-time state champion Seminole. And Countryside's two losses were to Seminole and Palm Harbor.

An even tougher road might lie ahead for the 3A-9 champion, which takes on the 3A-10 winner. Seminole is in the 3A-10 tournament. Massaro predicted close battles at the top two singles spots, which means her team's best chance to advance might lie in the hands -- and rackets -- of her lower-seeded players.

"Countryside and Palm Harbor are pretty deep at No. 1 and No. 2," Massaro said. "It's pretty wide open at 3, 4 and 5."

Finalists for the No. 1 and No. 2 singles likely will emerge from River Ridge's Kerri Goldberg and Sitha Mangipudy, Countryside's Jennifer Dent and Jennifer Watts and Palm Harbor's Sarah Buchanan and Huldah Dayton.

While Massaro said she believes Goldberg and Mangipudy are finalist contenders, she expressed the most confidence in her No. 3 player, unbeaten freshman Jennifer Saurez.

"My No. 3 player, I think, will win the district," Massaro said. "I'll be disappointed if she doesn't."

No. 4 Heather Clendening, who capped her senior year at River Ridge with a 14-0 regular-season mark, and No. 5 Nikki Pridgen also should bolster the Knights' title hopes.

"My girls come in with a lot of confidence," Massaro said, adding that as freshmen, Goldberg and Mangipudy were part of the Knights' district championship team in 1997. "That experience will help us greatly." In the boys division, Michael Villeda and Kisi Koestline, Land O'Lakes' top two singles players and No. 1 doubles tandem, lead a team that lost just twice this season.

But they will be hard pressed to get past unbeaten Countryside (14-0) and No. 1 Bryan Lauer, a junior who is ranked 42nd in the state in the under-16 division.

Led by Matt Rice and Matt Kalil, Dunedin (12-3) also is strong in the boys tournament.

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