Citrus is unseasoned, but it split with Hernando, tonight's regional foe, this season and has been playing hard. The players said they think they have just as good a chance as Hernando at making it into the regional semifinals Friday night.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH and BRANT JAMES
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 2000
INVERNESS -- In an ideal situation, Mike Taylor would like for his Citrus baseball team to be a little more experienced heading into the Class 3A regional quarterfinal game at Hernando tonight.
But this isn't an ideal situation.
The Hurricanes (10-16) have had one of their toughest seasons in years, losing six players who either quit or left the team because of injuries or disciplinary suspensions.
Despite earning just 10 wins, Taylor said all things considered, the Hurricanes should be commended for accomplishing what they have.
"I like our guys; they have come together and played hard," Taylor said. "A lot of them came up (from junior varsity) and others had to switch positions, but you can't ask for anything more. They've done real good.
"You want to be a little more seasoned when you get to the end, which most teams are, but I can't complain. They've worked hard and the nucleus of this team has had a good season."
Citrus will play at Hernando at 7:30 p.m. Hernando split its regular-season series with Citrus, losing 11-9 early in the season, then winning 8-0 when Brad Wyatt became the first freshman since at least 1961 to throw a no-hitter for the Leopards.
Some Citrus players said Monday that they felt confident about their chances tonight, but did express some uneasiness about facing Jason Dunn, the Hernando ace Citrus didn't see in either of its games.
It looks as if their concerns were unfounded: Dunn isn't starting.
No disrespect is intended, Hernando coach Tim Sims said, but he's saving his ace for the second round of the Class 3A, Region II playoffs.
That does not mean Dunn, the Leopards' leader in wins, strikeouts and earned-run average, will not be used against Citrus. Sims wants to make sure there is a second round for his team.
Sims said the possibility of facing 22-8 Eustis on the road on Friday led to the decision to start senior John Neal. Eustis has lost at home only once this season, to nationally ranked Zephyrhills. Twice this season, Eustis beat its first-round opponent, Williston, by 10-run margins.
"This is no disrespect to Citrus," Simms said. "It's just respect down the road."
Citrus will start its ace, junior lefty Sam McLain, with closer Todd Martin and Matt Maggiore on hand.Maggiore was the starting pitcher in Friday night's 10-9 loss to Dunnellon in the district final.
"Sam will pitch, but everybody else will be ready," Taylor said. "We hope to go down there, play hard, play a good game and hopefully at the end when you look at the scoreboard, we'll be on top.
"This game will probably be a pitcher-defensive game and a couple of clutch hits. Our guys don't get too shook or nervous, they just try to get something done. As long as we do that, we have a chance."
McLain is 5-6 with a 1.71 ERA during the regular season. In the district semifinals, McLain pitched a complete game, earning a 1-0 win over Crystal River. He has been a varsity starter since his freshman season and will play in his third regional playoff game tonight.
"I'm not really nervous," he said. "I just need to have a good game, mix it up and keep them off balance."
Hernando got poor pitching in the first matchup, and an obviously strong effort in the second, but the common thread in each was run-support. Hernando ended the regular season batting better than .330 as a team. Senior catcher Chris Cole (.530) and junior center fielder Dee Brown (.525, 15 home runs) are the most potent batters in a Hernando lineup with few weak links.
Citrus struggled late in the season with its hitting, but its bats came alive in Friday's loss. The Hurricanes had 10 hits.
There was a time when making it this far seemed completely out of the question for Citrus. A nine-game losing streak late nearly broke the spirit of the players who had decided to stick out the season.
"It was exhausting," first baseman Steve Conkel said. "I'm sorry, but at one point I just wanted to get this over with. But once we stopped our losing streak and we beat South Sumter (April 13), that was big. It showed me the light. Losing nine games in a row is not fun. But we have a lot of confidence (for tonight's game). We've played against a lot of those guys before, we've split with them, we've got Sam pitching and he's pitching good right now."
The record may not indicate it, but the Citrus players said they consider themselves to have just as good a chance as Hernando at making it into the regional semifinals Friday night.
"We worked hard and stuck it through this year and that's why we're here and we're starting to play better as a team now," second baseman/pitcher Maggiore said. "Everyone is trying hard and we want to win bad. If our pitchers keep it low and we can make the (defensive) plays, we have a good chance."