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Eight elite teams, one survivor

Some of the best in the state - and nation - will fight it out for one final four berth.

By JOHN SCHWARB

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


Picture an NCAA basketball tournament with No. 1 and 2 seeds playing each other in first- and second-round contests.

Odd? Absolutely. Unfair? Possibly.

Now picture it on a softball field near you.

A similar scenario is about to play out in the Class 5A tournament starting Tuesday. As always, the Florida High School Activities Association has bracketed 32 teams into four regions of eight each, with one to emerge as champion from each to comprise the final four.

Occasionally, one region appears stronger than the other three, not unlike one regional sometimes does in the NCAAs. But in 5A softball, Region 3 might be one of the strongest octets of teams ever assembled.

The teams: Chamberlain, Countryside, Palm Harbor U., Plant, River Ridge, Riverview, Sarasota and Seminole.

The combined record: 192-43-1.

The rankings: four among the top five in the Times Tampa Bay Top 10, four of the top nine in the 5A state poll and the No. 1 and No. 8 spots in a national poll.

The history: three state titles and three runner-up finishes by five different teams in the past two years (other classes' tournaments included).

In sum: a brutal stretch of three games in which the last team standing will either be a shoo-in for a state title or exhausted from having to battle so many great teams so early.

Or both.

"A lot of people say they have tough (regions), but I'd have to say Region 3 is the toughest," Countryside coach Scott Kitchen said.

In any other year, a team like Countryside would be a heavy favorite to survive regional play and reach the final four. The Cougars are only 31-0, No. 1 in the Times Top 10, No. 1 in the state poll and No. 1 in the USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll.

After Thursday's regional semifinals, however, the chances of not being No. 1 are possible. River Ridge (24-6) is not likely to stand in the Cougars' way. But in the regional semifinals, one of two powerhouses will get a shot at knocking out Countryside.

Riverview (24-5) is the defending state champion, and Chamberlain (27-2-1) is in the midst of an outstanding season. Though they lost last week in the district final, the Chiefs are No. 3 in the state, No. 8 in the national poll (both polls do not include the district loss) and two years removed from a 6A runner-up finish.

The winner of that half of Region 3 could face any one of three other top foes: PHU, Plant or Sarasota.

PHU (26-4) is ranked seventh in the state and has two consecutive state final appearances (including a 4A state title in 1999) to draw from. With an expected win over Seminole (20-10), a tough semifinal awaits.

Plant (17-10), state runners-up a year ago, served notice last week that it has a chance by beating Chamberlain. Sarasota (23-6) won a state title in 1999 and is always dangerous.

"I just think it's really balanced," PHU coach Chuck Poetter said.

"There's no team, in my opinion, that's a clear favorite."

So how will it all play out? It could come down to Countryside-PHU for the third time this season. Or two Hillsborough teams. Or another combination.

Only one thing seems assured. The games should be classics.

"It definitely means that our sport has come a lot farther; that we're going to have more competition (in regionals)," said Countryside pitcher Crystal Crews, who could decide the whole thing with her right arm.

"It's a challenge, and whoever comes out on top deserves to be there."

Want more?

For the complete state softball pairings, check out:

www.fhsaa.org/sports/sbindex.htm

For the complete state baseball pairings, check out:

www.fhsaa.org/sports/baindex.htm

Tuesday's regional softball games

CLASS 5A, REGION 3: River Ridge at Countryside

WHEN: 4 p.m.

WHERE: Bomber Stadium.

THE SKINNY: The Royal Knights (24-6) are not a first-round cupcake. They fought PHU for nine innings before losing 1-0 in the district final. But Countryside (31-0) has had an eye on May since preseason and relishes the chance to live up to its No. 1 state and national billing. River Ridge will be lucky to snap the Cougars' current 23-inning scoreless streak.

MOVING ON: The winner plays Riverview or Chamberlain.

* * *

Seminole at Palm Harbor U.

WHEN: 4 p.m.

THE SKINNY: PHU coach Chuck Poetter said he sensed a lack of intensity in the Hurricanes' district title game against River Ridge, though the key word there might be district. With state final appearances the past two years, the Hurricanes (26-4) know how to win come playoff time. Katie Dobson (14-1) usually needs just a couple of runs to bring home a win, and PHU can handle that against the Warhawks (20-10).

MOVING ON: The winner plays Plant or Sarasota.

* * *

CLASS 4A, REGION 3: Bradenton Southeast at Northeast

WHEN: 4 p.m.

THE SKINNY: The Vikings (16-2) are making their fifth consecutive regional appearance and open against Southeast (8-16), which got pounded in the district final by East Bay. Crystal Folwell has 10 shutouts for Northeast, and the defense behind her has steadily improved during the season. Coach Sheryl Hollen also said she believes, "We have a little more hitting in us."

MOVING ON: The winner plays Land O'Lakes or Leto.

* * *

Gibbs at East Bay

WHEN: 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: 7710 Big Bend Road, Gibsonton.

THE SKINNY: Advancing to the playoffs for the first time since 1992 is a tremendous feat for coach Rick Bose and the Gladiators (8-10), but the ride ends here. Florida signee Mandy Schuerman is the fireballing star pitcher for East Bay (24-4-1). This season, she is 20-3-1 with 11 no-hitters and 277 strikeouts in 144 innings.

MOVING ON: The winner plays Clearwater or Tampa Bay Tech.

* * *

Clearwater at Tampa Bay Tech

WHEN: 4 p.m.

WHERE: 6410 Orient Road, Tampa.

THE SKINNY: The Tornadoes (17-10) let a district title literally slide through their hands when a two-out error in the final inning jump-started a Land O'Lakes rally. Redemption is possible against TBT (16-5), which ruled a weak district, provided Clearwater's considerable lineup (six .400 hitters) does its job.

MOVING ON: The winner plays East Bay or Gibbs.

* * *

CLASS 3A, REGION 3: Tampa Cath. at St. Petersburg Cath.

WHEN: 5 p.m.

THE SKINNY: This matchup of year-round rivals could be the best game of the day. The Crusaders (15-12) handed the Barons (18-5) two of their five losses, including a 2-1 decision April 9 that is the only blemish on pitcher Angela Vidal's record. SPC has the home field, but TC has regional experience.

MOVING ON: The winner plays Avon Park or Palmetto.

* * *

Osceola at Acad. of the Holy Names

WHEN: 4 p.m.

WHERE: 3319 Bayshore Blvd., Tampa.

THE SKINNY: Osceola (6-12) got an inspired effort in the district semifinals, coming from behind twice to beat Mitchell 7-6 in 10 innings. In the final, however, the defense imploded in a 9-0 loss to SPC. "If we can cut the errors, we can play with anyone," coach James Hill said. That's a big "if" against good-hitting AHN (18-8).

MOVING ON: The winner plays Mulberry or Sarasota Cardinal Mooney.

* * *

CLASS 2A, REGION 3: Northside Chr. at Lakeland Chr.

WHEN: 7 p.m.

GETTING THERE: Take I-4 east to Polk County Parkway (Exit 15A). Take Parkway to Harden Boulevard (Exit 5) and go left at the stoplight. Stay on Harden past the school. At the third stoplight, go left on Greenwood Road then right on Southern Road and right on Josephine Road to Westside Softball Complex.

THE SKINNY: The Mustangs (9-9) failed to hold a lead twice against Bradenton St. Stephen's, earning a long bus ride to play the solid Vikings (19-5), who beat No. 7-ranked Berkeley Prep squad for the district title.

MOVING ON: The winner plays Fort Pierce John Carroll or Winter Park Trinity Prep.

* * *

CLASS A, REGION 3: Bayshore Chr. at Keswick Chr.

WHEN: 4 p.m.

THE SKINNY: The Crusaders (9-3) have been an entertaining team, aggressive on the basepaths and capable of scoring a lot of runs. Bayshore Christian (13-9) knows it. Keswick blasted the Faith Warriors 23-0 last month. The real test might come in the next round against a state-ranked opponent.

MOVING ON: The winner plays Community School of Naples or Sarasota Christian.

* * *

Lakeside Chr. at Seminole Pres.

WHEN: 4 p.m.

WHERE: North Rome Avenue and West Sligh Avenue playground, Tampa.

THE SKINNY: The Lions (7-6), beaten 10-0 in five innings by Keswick in the district final, are not likely to fare much better against the Lancers (14-6), who reached the state semifinals last year and currently are ranked No. 9 in Class A.

MOVING ON: The winner plays Fort Myers Southwest Florida Christian or Sarasota Out-of-Door Academy. -- Compiled by John Schwarb.

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