CLEARWATER — Countryside baseball coach Kemo O’Sullivan is spitting sunflower seeds and spinning a story Thursday afternoon at practice.
It’s about a baseball team that hasn’t ever done much, until now. It’s about pitching and defense, and how mastering those things has a group of young kids thinking they might just be in the middle of something special. It’s about a hot start, but a long season.
O’Sullivan’s story, ultimately, is about the arrival of his baseball program.
“I don’t think we’re going anywhere,” he says.
The Cougars shagging flies in the outfield and banging batting practice pitches from the cage and running sprints agree.
Countryside is 11-1, winner of nine straight heading in today’s district game with Clearwater, and the new No. 1 team in the Tampa Bay Times’ Super 7 for Pinellas County.
No one is hotter. The Cougars have allowed only two runs in their past four games, have allowed more than two runs in just three games this season and have a team ERA under 1.00.
The offense isn’t a powerhouse, but with that kind of pitching, it doesn’t need to be.
As a result, these Cougars could be for real.
“I definitely think so,” said ace Eric Russell, who struck out a season-high 10 and improved to 4-0 by beating Palm Harbor University on Wednesday.
“We definitely have the pitching and the defense to take us far. I think we’ll definitely make the playoffs and do some damage in the playoffs. I feel pretty confident in that.”
Russell has a 0.54 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched), and leads the Cougars with a .439 batting average and 12 RBIs.
While Russell has emerged as one of the county’s best all-around players, he is getting plenty of help.
Shortstop Zach Koenn is hitting .333 and has been near-flawless in the field, committing just one error. Sophomore second baseman Charlie Skantze has only two errors and has turned a couple of crucial double plays.
Russell said catcher Bobby Krayer hasn’t let a curveball in the dirt get past him all season, and he has thrown out four of nine base-stealers.
“Best defensive catcher in the county,” Russell said.
Third baseman Brendan Stevens is hitting .367, and Vinny Ballantoni is half of a formidable 1-2 combo on the mound.
Like Russell, Ballantoni is also 4-0, and is second on the team with 10 RBIs.
Ballantoni had one rough outing, against Clearwater Central Catholic. But it was that victory — the Cougars rallied from a 6-1 deficit to win 7-6 — that may have set the winning tone.
“That showed us what we could do,” Russell said. “That made us pretty confident that we were going to do some damage.”
Countryside hasn’t won a playoff game since 2001. Last year, the Cougars made the playoffs and fell to Plant, but the coach is hoping the postseason appearance was the start of a tradition.
“I’d like to think this is all the fruits of our labor,” said O’Sullivan, a former Dunedin assistant who is intent on turning Countryside into a similar program. “We have a lot of kids out here that like playing baseball. I think last year we had that for the first time, and this is really the foundation for what we are trying to do.”
The Cougars’ schedule gets tougher starting tonight. On Tuesday they meet Seminole then will head into the Dunedin Easter Tournament, where they are in the same bracket as East Lake, the only team to beat them, and Tarpon Springs, which they beat 3-2.
There may still be some doubts whether the Cougars can last, but O’Sullivan doesn’t share them.
“We have some things down the road, certainly with Seminole (No. 2 in the Super 7),” he said. “But I’ll be honest with you bring ’em on. Any time we have what’s going on out on the hill and what we have out (there in the field), I like our chances.”