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First, Bears and Leopards must win

Any thoughts of a rematch are two wins away for both teams starting tonight in regional play. Central is at Dunnellon and Hernando is host to Crystal River.

By GREG AUMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 2000


It's hard to tell whether Central's softball team wants to win today's regional quarterfinal game at Dunnellon to keep its season alive, or just to move one step closer to another rematch with Hernando.

Both teams would have to win their next two playoff games for the county rivals to square off for a fourth time this year on Saturday, but the potential of just that has provided some extra motivation for the Bears.

"We want to play them again," said Central coach Benny Martinez, whose team beat Hernando at home but has lost to the Leopards twice at Tom Varn Park. "They haven't beaten us yet this season. We beat them everywhere except on the scoreboard."

Unfortunately for Central, the scoreboard after last week's district championship saw Hernando winning 2-1, which is why the Leopards are at home tonight against Crystal River while Central is on the road to face Dunnellon.

Hernando coach Ernie Chatman said his team isn't thinking about Central, and probably wouldn't begin doing so until it has cleared the first two hurdles ahead.

"We've got two games before we can even consider playing them again," said Chatman, who has yet to advance to a regional final in three previous playoff runs. "There's one thing on our minds, and it's Crystal River. There have been some upsets in these tournaments already, and I don't want to be one of them."

Hernando, with a 23-3 record and a top-five ranking in this week's state softball poll, has good reason for cautious optimism. The Leopards' playoff run opens tonight at home, where they are undefeated this season. Hernando defeated Crystal River (11-10) 7-2 and 3-1 this season and beat the Pirates in the preseason as well.

"I think they're an improved team, but most teams should be at this time in the season," Chatman said of the Pirates. "They have a couple of dangerous hitters, and their pitching has gotten better as well. We hit into two double plays in the last game, and their shortstop took some more hits away from us. Their defense made that game a close one."

The Leopards boast three regulars who are batting over .400 -- sophomore Kimi Olmstead, junior Chrissy Hartley and senior Katye Altieri. On the mound, Hernando will start Hartley (11-1, 0.52 ERA) against the Pirates, with the hopes of throwing senior Beth Chatman (9-0, 0.54 ERA) in a regional semifinal Thursday against tonight's South Sumter-Keystone winner.

The Leopards would travel for that game, but could be back home for the regional final Saturday, depending on which team emerges from the other semifinal.

That could be Central, which would put the teams' fourth meeting at Tom Varn. To continue their season, the Bears (19-6) will have to win on the road, and Martinez is trying to rally the team this week.

"You get down to this time of year, they're getting pretty tired, so you try to keep them united," Martinez said. "Team unity is the most difficult part, but my team has played together pretty well."

Martinez said he will be throwing senior Jen Pape (14-6) the rest of the way -- Pape struck out 12 Dunnellon batters in Central's 5-0 win earlier this season. Dunnellon's top player is catcher Joy Long, who can create problems both at the plate and behind it.

"We shut her down last time, but even if you can keep Joy out of it offensively, you still can't run against her," Martinez said.

After tinkering with his lineup against Hernando last week, Martinez said he will move Riki Aulozzi back to the lead-off spot and return to the regular lineup he used for most of this season.

"I'm going back to what got us here," said Martinez, who pointed out that four of Central's six losses were by one run, with the other two ending with two-run deficits.

The Bears must hope the close margins work in their favor this week, unlike the district championship against Hernando. Martinez said the Leopards' 2-1 victory can be traced to three batters who, by his standards, should not have reached base in Hernando's two-run third inning.

Hernando's Jamie Kunkel was hit in the head with a pitch to start the inning, bringing freshman Kristi Langworthy to the plate. Langworthy squared to bunt twice, but with fielders moving in and two strikes against her, she lined a double just over the head of centerfielder Tracie Ploskonka. A throwing error on Beth Chatman's ensuing bunt brought in the first run, and Martinez figures his team can return to its winning ways if it can eliminate mistakes such as those.

"If Tracie takes one step back, if we make one less miscue, we win the game," Martinez said.

Both teams have ample opportunity to go where no previous team from their schools has gone. Central has never won a regional softball game, and Hernando has never advanced beyond the regional semifinal, with its lone wins in seven regional appearances coming in '97 and '99.

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