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Bulldogs step up to the plate

The Zephyrhills High School baseball team has a chance to make history next week - its first state championship.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2000


ZEPHYRHILLS -- Maurice Humphries admits his strength was as a fielder when he played high school baseball more than 50 years ago.

"I was a very poor hitter," he said, "but I was really good defensively."

And his team?

"We were fair," Humphries said. "I can't remember us ever setting the world on fire."

On Friday, the former Zephyrhills infielder and outfielder came out to see his old team.

Humphries was one of about 75 fans who watched this season's Zephyrhills baseball team, which is headed to the state final four for the first time since 1970, during fan appreciation night at John F. Clements Field.

"They're the best," said Humphries, who graduated in 1942. "I've really enjoyed it. They're all good boys. I've enjoyed watching them and have been following them for years."

The Bulldogs, who will play Bishop Kenny in a Class 4A semifinal at 5 p.m. on Wednesday at Legends Field in Tampa, took batting practice, held a home run-hitting contest and scrimmaged while fans watched and answered trivia questions to win whole watermelons.

"I haven't missed a home game in 10 years," said 78-year-old Art Fish, who's followed Zephyrhills baseball the last 20 years. "This is the best team I've ever seen."

The home run contest was the obvious highlight of the evening because Zephyrhills, which has a 31-2 record and a No. 8 national ranking, has hit a state record 63 home runs this season.

Junior outfielder Danny Wardell won the contest by launching 15 home runs, some flying as far as the football field well beyond the left field fence and others hitting the top of portable classrooms set behind the right-centerfield fence.

"They're all hitting the ball, not just home runs," said Humphries, who is hosting a dinner for the team after practice on Tuesday. "They all hit the ball well. Usually there's one or two that slumps at times, but they're coming through when they need to."

The Bulldogs' historic season has gripped not only the fans who came out Friday but the community as well, from the lunch counters to the pulpits to City Hall.

Everywhere you go, people in town are talking about the team and speculating about its chances for bringing home the school's first state title in baseball.

Win or lose, said Mayor Roy Burnside, the team has made Zephyrhills proud.

"People really get behind winners," said Burnside, whose grandnephew, Brooks Boyette, is the team's catcher. "Especially when it's your hometown.

"They're a great part of Zephyrhills, and we need to crow about them."

From Gary Coon, who came out Friday with a camera to take pictures of any future professional baseball players who might be playing for Zephyrhills right now, to the drivers who drive slowly on the road outside the stadium to the Rev. Buddy Hollyfield of the First Presbyterian Church, the team's fan base extends beyond Zephyrhills High School's parents and students.

"People are really getting excited," Hollyfield said. "I hope they go all the way."

Hollyfield said the Bulldogs have more on their side than prolific home run hitters and dominating pitching.

"I've been praying for them all along," he said. "Why do you think they've gotten this far?"

- Times staff writer Cary Davis contributed to this report.

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