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River Ridge Eight made their mark

The Royal Knights have won 26 games the past two years thanks in large part to the hard work of their seniors.

By JOHN C. COTEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2001


NEW PORT RICHEY -- They were not a heralded group when they came in as freshmen, not particularly imposing by the time they reached their junior seasons, and not all that feared entering this season.

But say this for the eight River Ridge seniors: they win.

In the past two seasons, the Royal Knights have 26 wins. That might not seem like a lot when stacked up against, say, a Land O'Lakes, Pasco or Zephyrhills (circa 2000), but for a program that went 5-19 in 1998, it's a marked improvement.

The Royal Knights won 11 games last year, and despite losing their top pitcher, came back this year to shatter the school record with 16 wins (with one game remaining), three more than the previous mark established in 1993. They have set new standards at the school for baseball excellence, standards that even former star and current professional T.J. Tucker couldn't lead the team to.

And that is the point -- back then, the Royal Knights rarely had the kind of depth and leadership they have this year. Tonight, the Royal Knights' group of eight will be honored at the team's home finale against Zephyrhills.

Shortstop Greg Esteves, third baseman Tommy Dillon, catcher Billy Phillips, centerfielder Joe Savino, pitcher Chad Justus are all starters; Matt Lee, Aaron Worley and Gerardo Cruz are part-time starters but full-time contributors.

"I think it's a good group of baseball players," coach Jack Homko said. "It doesn't have a Derek Kuryliw or a Danny Wardell, that type of player with that power, but you look for strengths and go from there."

Those strengths are varied. Esteves, who is batting .286, is the team's fastest player and leads the squad in steals. Dillon is hitting .307 and bidding to lead the county in doubles. Savino has struggled this season while trying to regain last year's form and power, and Phillips is a county MVP candidate as he leads the team in almost every statistical category.

From the beginning of the season, Homko knew what to expect from them. But he was also fearful of a lack of pitching depth after Chris Langlois (8 of the team's 11 wins last year) graduated. Enter Justus, little used on the mound his junior year but a stalwart for much of 2001.

"The big question with us was the pitching; we knew we had Justin Roth, but he was only a 10th-grader and Brandon Dellachaie was an 11th-grader," Homko said. "It was an unproven thing. Justus stepped in and did a great job for us."

As a result, River Ridge won more games than Homko admits he thought they would.

Already, two of the eight -- Phillips and Dillon -- have signed with Pasco-Hernando Community College. They are the pair Homko will likely miss the most next year.

Especially the unsung and versatile Dillon. Though he starts at third, when Phillips pitches Dillon hops behind the plate. He played second base last year, and can also start in the outfield if needed.

"Dillon is just one of those kids that can play anywhere," Homko said.

"He's really a kid I'm going to miss next year. Just great hands. I really think he'll do well at the next level."

But only after he helps take River Ridge there.

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