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Unlikely heroes land Bucs, Rams in title game

By JOHN C. COTEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2001


NEW PORT RICHEY -- They played a couple of district baseball games Wednesday night at Ridgewood and a smiling contest broke out.

Your winner: Gulf coach Shaun Wiemer, who I'm pretty sure slept with his uniform on after the game. Not that Ridgewood coach Larry Beets has anything to be ashamed of, finishing second and all. It's hard to smile when you're choked up after watching your team almost throw its second no-hitter in as many nights.

And besides, Beets has been here before. Maybe not in the same manner, with Dave Hancox and Ronny Lowe pitching the games of their lives at the most opportune time, but district finals are nothing new to the dean of Pasco's baseball coaches.

Now Wiemer, that's another story. He played on Gulf teams that won more than they lost just once and never made a district final. He is an alumnus of a team that once won 6, 7, 6, 6, 6 and 7 games in consecutive seasons. He graduated from a school whose prep teams have consistently been bad more often than not.

But after his team heroically rallied to beat Palm Harbor 6-5 to make tonight's Class 5A, District 9 final, Wiemer is the coach of the school's first-ever playoff baseball team.

He didn't know quite how to act. So he smiled and slapped his meaty hand around the outstretched hands of well-wishers, and there were many. And he tried to explain how his team did it.

That was hard to do, so Wiemer said they were lucky, shrugged his shoulders, laughed and then praised his squad's resolve.

Gulf will not scare anyone with its lineup, and its ace was sent to the bench on the wrong end of a 5-0 score early against Palm Harbor lefty Nate Craft, who is one of the best around.

In scrappy fashion, however, the Bucs battled back. Sidney Gibbs fouled off seven two-strike pitches before doubling to start a rally. Johnny Wirick and David Pirman beat out infield hits and Paul Krisanda, who has struggled the past two years, laced a two-run hit to cap another.

Then Nelson Rodriguez made the greatest diving catch just about anyone at the game had ever seen. Even as Lowe was weaving a no-hitter in the second game, there was still talk of the catch.

And a sophomore named Kevin Campbell saved the day. Wiemer promised he was going to be good, and made him the Bucs' No. 2 starter. But when Campbell faltered during the season, Wiemer had to return him to the junior varsity team.

Against Palm Harbor, he inherited two runners in the third and stranded them. He gutted his way out of a jam in the fifth, and with two more runners on in the seventh, he got the dangerous Craft to ground out.

"He's got his confidence level up," Rodriguez said. "He was in a spot earlier in the season that he wasn't ready for. But he went down to JV, threw a no-hitter, came back and saved us today."

And then there was Wiemer, the first-year coach who has orchestrated the improbable. He never stopped clapping, never stopped stalking in front of the dugout, and never stopped imploring his team to fight back. Still sometimes rough around the edges, even his mistakes turned golden.

In the seventh, he tried to substitute a faster runner for Rodney Linville. But the umps ruled the substitution illegal because Linville was a sub.

So a pitch later, with two outs, the third baseman throws the ball away and Wiemer is crazily hopping up and down, waving Linville -- the kid he tried to get out of the game -- all the way around from first. He was going to be out with any kind of a throw from Craft, now at first and chasing the ball down. But the throw was off and Linville scored the game-winner.

"I didn't know if we'd get another chance," Wiemer said. "So we went for it."

How to top that finish? How about Lowe's performance, which was mind-numbing considering the junior had been battered by East Lake a month before. But this time, he was sharper, faster, more determined.

"Same stuff I had last time," he said. "I just wanted it more."

What Beets wanted to talk about most, though, was Monte Werner's throw from rightfield to home on East Lake's second hit, nailing Tyler Huegel at the plate and ending the game. The sophomore had struck out twice and stranded three runners, prolonging a personal slump, but responded with his arm.

"He had a bad night at the plate and that play shows he's grown up a lot," Beets said. "If he hadn't, he could have never made that throw. He put the team first."

And with that, Beets was done talking and began plotting for tonight's final against Gulf.

Topping Wednesday's semifinals won't be easy. But be assured Wiemer and Beets will have their players ready to try and do so.

They will play a district championship tonight, and an old-time neighborhood party is likely to take place.

Your winner: the fans.

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