The Tornadoes' path to the final four faces one more obstacle - Jefferson and fireball pitcher Jason Weintraub.
By PETE YOUNG
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 8, 2001
Last season, Clearwater lost in the district semifinal.
At 7:30 tonight, the Tornadoes are hosting Jefferson with the region title at stake.
So, Clearwater must be a much improved team this season, right? Not necessarily. Clearwater coach Steve McKee will tell you last year's club was very good, too -- it just wasn't as fortunate.
"The breaks can make a difference," said McKee, who is gunning for his first state final four in four seasons at the school. "You know you're going to have to beat somebody good along the way, and the farther you go, you'll have to beat good teams playing their best.
"You wouldn't (purposely) lose a district final to get a better draw, but (the draw) can make a difference."
The 2001 Tornadoes have taken advantage of more favorable playoff brackets. In 2000, Clearwater ran into a powerful Seminole team in the district semifinal, losing a 1-0 heartbreaker and prematurely ending its season with a 19-9 record.
This season, having dropped from 5A to 4A, No. 3-seed Clearwater (18-13) toppled No. 2 Land O'Lakes 2-1 in the district semifinal.
After losing the district final 8-5 to Dunedin, the Tornadoes caught a break in the region quarterfinal by facing (and clobbering, 12-0) overmatched Leto, which was the upset winner of District 10.
Following a hard-fought 8-6 win at Dixie Hollins in Friday's region semifinal, the Tornadoes might be catching another break today -- they don't have to play at Dunedin, which defeated Clearwater three times this season. Jefferson (18-10) and star pitcher Jason Weintraub (8-3, 117 strikeouts) upset the Falcons 7-3 in the region quarterfinal.
So instead, the Tornadoes will host the Dragons and Weintraub, the fireballing, South Florida-bound right-hander, for a berth in a state semifinal against No. 7 Live Oak Suwannee (27-5) or No. 5 Tallahassee Godby (28-4).
While facing a likely high draft pick such as Weintraub isn't necessarily a "break," Clearwater's chances on the road vs. Dunedin would have seemed dim.
The Tornadoes will counter Weintraub with their own senior ace, left-hander Jason Costello. Costello (6-3, 742/3 innings, 92 strikeouts, 1.78 ERA) has allowed just one run in his two previous starts combined (against Land O'Lakes and Leto) and he pitched the final three outs Friday against Dixie Hollins.
"Everybody's excited," said McKee, who is looking to guide Clearwater to its first final four since 1995. "They're ready to go on adrenaline alone."