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Rams playing best ball at right time

By JOHN C. COTEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2001


NEW PORT RICHEY -- If Larry Beets could have picked any time for his seniors to come through, could have picked the moment they busted out and buried their disappointing junior years, he would have chosen last week's district tournament.

What a coincidence then that in the three-game tournament Dave Hancox threw a no-hitter and earned a save, Derek Kuryliw drove in the winning run in each game, Justin Libecap homered in the opener, Mike Senter slid into first base to beat a throw and drive in a crucial run and Rick Brensinger anchored the middle of the lineup.

Those efforts helped bring Ridgewood its first district title since 1991, sending the Rams into tonight's Region 3 quarterfinal against Countryside at 7:30.

Though all of Beets' seniors had good final seasons, the coach thinks they have played even better the past few weeks.

"Oh yes, 100 percent (better)," Beets said. "The kids don't want the season to be over. They realize that a high school baseball career is a short-lived career. Every time we practice, it's one less time we get together as a team. Now, that means something to me and hopefully it means something to them."

It would appear so, considering the Rams were seeded last in the 5A-9 tournament and defeated the Nos. 1, 3 and 4 teams on the way to the title. They got pitching gems from Hancox and Ronnie Lowe -- a two-hit shutout in a semifinal win over No. 1 East Lake -- and clutch hitting.

No Ram was more clutch than Kuryliw, who has emerged as one of the county's finest players. Kuryliw's two-out homer in the opener gave Hancox all the support he would require, and he doubled in a run against East Lake that broke open a scoreless tie and proved to be another game-winner.

In the title game, Kuryliw's fifth-inning double drove in two runs and gave the Rams a 3-2 lead it would not relinquish.

Beets traces Kuryliw's furious finish -- he could set school single-season records for batting average, home runs and doubles -- to a midseason talk in which the coach implored the player to be more than an impressive hitter.

Beets remembers Kuryliw hitting a mammoth home run, but striking out looking with runners on second and third his next time up. The last two strikes were identical inside pitches.

"I took him off on the side and told him he was a big-time hitter, he's proven that," Beets said. "But the same pitch right there and you take it twice? What message are you telling people, and scouts? The great hitters, that second pitch, if it's in the same place they're going to mash it. I told him there's a fine line separating you (from that) at this point. He went on a tear from that point on."

And the Rams (21-9) went with him. They won their first regional playoff games in each of their last two trips to the playoffs, and now aim to repeat the performance. With a rested pitching staff, a young group eager to learn and a cast of seniors determined to keep their last season going, Beets likes his team's chances in the playoffs.

"The guys are ready," he said. "This is a great opportunity and they know they can't let it slip by."

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