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Off-season leagues now united


Revised September 11, 2000

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 7, 2000

For 30 years, the St. Petersburg Winter Baseball League provided competition for high school players in Pinellas County during the off-season. However, the league primarily consisted of teams just from south county.

Two years ago, an AAU winter league was founded, consisting primarily of high school teams in north Pinellas.

Last month, the logical outcome occurred: The leagues merged, forming the Pinellas County Fall/Winter High School Baseball League.

The 24-team league includes teams representing most public and private high schools in Pinellas and a few from outside the county, nine junior varsity teams and an elite team, the Pinellas County Scout Team, which will travel to wood bat tournaments throughout Florida during the fall.

"We have north county and south county united for the best interests of the kids, which is as it should be," said Jay Zitzelberger, the co-commissioner of the league and the former president of the St. Petersburg Winter Baseball League.

The regular season runs from Sept. 17 to Nov. 22, and there will be playoffs. Ben Royster, the former head of the AAU league and now co-commissioner, said the elite team will give the top players, such as first-team All-Pinellas selections Kyle Crump of Lakewood, Ryan Searage of Dixie Hollins and Jason Leonard of Northeast, an opportunity to play high-caliber competition in front of pro and college scouts. Also, they'll use wood bats, as is required in professional baseball.

Shorecrest coach Don Reed, Shorecrest pitching coach Bobby Thigpen and former Lakewood coach Angelo LoGrande are some of the coaches who will work with the elite team, which will play nine tournaments, beginning last weekend in Dunnellon and culminating Nov. 18-19 at Florida International University in Miami.

The league is not formally affiliated with the high schools, and high school coaches are not allowed to coach their respective teams as per Florida High School Activities Association rules.

However, the rules do permit high school coaches some involvement. Tom Hilbert, the coach of the Dunedin high school team, is a coach with the elite team. Even though Dunedin players Taylor McCormack and Matt Cheek are on the elite team, Hilbert can coach because Dunedin players comprise less than 50 percent of the roster.

Zitzelberger has coached Gibbs in winter baseball since 1990, and his two sons, Chad (1994) and Billy (1996), are Gibbs graduates. He said he believes the merged leagues will help more local players earn scholarships.

"About 99.9 percent of them won't play big-league baseball, but a lot of them can get scholarships to college through baseball," Zitzelberger said. "Our goal is to get the kids to college, to use baseball as a steppingstone to college."

Royster, whose son, Adam, plays for Palm Harbor University and the elite team, thinks the combined league will serve local players better.

"Now we've got everybody merged together," Royster said. "It will be a very good, functional league."

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