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Winner of Rams vs. Bucs earns more than a trophy

By JOHN C. COTEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2001


The winner of tonight's Class 5A, District 9 final at Ridgewood gets a nice trophy, a champion designation, adulation from what is expected to be an overflow crowd, and a home game next week in the regional playoffs.

And yet, while all of that is nice, it pales in comparison to the grandest of all prizes for the Ridgewood-Gulf winner -- a bypass of Seminole, the No. 1-ranked team in the nation according to USA Today, the expected champion in District 10 and the first-round opponent of the District 9 runner-up.

Who says the format that allows both district finalists to advance to regionals dulls the importance of the championship game?

"The loser does not want to play Seminole," Ridgewood coach Larry Beets said. "Does not."

While who the loser will have to play is the most prevalent subplot of tonight's 8 p.m. game, the meeting between the two west-side rivals is expected to dominate center stage.

Gulf is expected to throw left-handed ace Joe Dan Fagan -- who was knocked out of the Bucs' semifinal win over Palm Harbor -- and the Rams might counter with Dave Hancox, who no-hit River Ridge in the quarterfinal Tuesday.

The game has everything going for it. Both teams advanced to the final with thrilling wins, Gulf rallying from a 5-0 deficit to beat Palm Harbor 6-5 and Ridgewood riding the left arm of Ronny Lowe, who nearly threw Ridgewood's second consecutive no-hitter before settling for a 2-0 shutout of top-seeded East Lake.

And the game will be overflowing with enough Pasco flavor to appeal to any local:

Beets used to coach Gulf, winning 51 games between 1979 and 1981.

Gulf coach Shaun Wiemer used to play for the Bucs, graduating as an all-North Suncoast and all-Gulf Coast Conference pick in 1987.

Ridgewood assistant Mike Yusko was the GCC Player of the Year in 1992 as a Gulf third baseman and led the Bucs to their last conference title in 1991.

Gulf pitching coach Mike Bobala was an all-conference pick in 1987 for Hudson and a Milwaukee Brewers draft choice.

Ronnie Wiemer, Shaun's cousin and Gulf assistant, played for Ridgewood an was an all-conference pick in 1997.

Ridgewood assistant Howard Chittum played for Beets in the mid-80s.

"It's like a big family get-together," Shaun Wiemer said. "This ought to be bigger than the Talladega 500."

It is Ridgewood, arguably the county's top baseball program, against Gulf, traditionally one of the worst. Since 1994, the Bucs had won just 48 games entering this season; the Rams have won 105. While Ronnie Wiemer experienced some of that success at Ridgewood, his cousin understands the Bucs' plight better than most.

In fact, two of the Rams' three regional playoff appearances came at the expense of Gulf, which has never been. In 1990 and '93, before the FHSAA began allowing both finalists to advance, Gulf dropped district championship games to Ridgewood.

In 1990, former Rams star Dave Doorneweerd struck out eight Bucs in relief as Ridgewood won 9-6.

In 1993, Gulf's Dino Stubos blasted a long drive over the foul pole in leftfield in the bottom of the ninth inning, sending coach Jerry Young running out onto the field in celebration. But umpires ruled the ball foul, and the Rams scored in the next inning to win 5-4.

"This has always been a great rivalry," Shaun Wiemer said. "The kids and the community are pretty excited about this one. It's going to be like a Friday night football game. Everybody is talking about it. People have told me they're calling in sick to work to be there. This will be the biggest game we've had in a long time."

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