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Veteran Devils are early favorites

For most Pinellas high schools, today is the opening day of the season. Ed Foley, tennis coach at St. Petersburg High, has two reasons to be confident: boys and girls teams comprised of experienced players, some with national rankings.

"Our boys team finished second in the district last year," said the sixth-year coach, "and we're even stronger this year."

The addition of nationally ranked sophomore John J. O'Brien, who will play the No.1 position, and the presence of senior Adam Baker and Colby Correa give the team strength and depth. Eric Wheeler and Jon Rauchway will likely round out the singles lineup today but were in challenge rounds earlier this week.

Dunedin, defending Pinellas County Conference champion, lost its top player, Mike Miller, to graduation. Burt Farley, 17th-year coach, looks for St. Petersburg to be the fiercest foe for his team.

"I really feel our overall strength is better this year," said Farley. "The fact that St. Pete is able to move players down the ladder as opposed to our moving up, however, will make it hard for us to repeat as PCC champions."

Although St. Petersburg is strong, both Foley and Farley consider

Seminole, Lakewood and Northeast contenders for the boys crown.

Foley's girls team last year tied for second place in the PCC, won the Class 3A, District 5 championship and finished sixth at state.

This year, freshmen Rachel Fiset and Nicole Bonner, both nationally ranked, join returning players Heather and Kerri Britt, and Robin Whaley.

"I have to be pleased," Foley said. "I have four girls that could all play number one and who could beat one another on a given day. We're going to be as tough as anybody."

Doug Haskitt, coach of two-time PCC girls champion Pinellas Park, predicts St. Petersburg is the team to beat.

"We lost two key players," said the third-year coach. "We don't have the depth as we did last year, but we'll do the best we can."

Seminole will be without junior Monica Kervandjian, who won the 4A-District 5 singles title last year. Kervandjian is recovering from a shoulder injury.

In 2A competition, the Thom Howard Academy boys have won four consecutive district championships and Shorecrest's girls have won three. This year, it could be the same results.

Second-year Shorecrest coach Andres Molina has returning players Sarah and Christina Malone and Karen Kingsley. Molina said he believes his team will repeat as district champion. Shorecrest opens against Tampa Catholic on Feb. 26.

Dr. Thom Howard, coach at Thom Howard, will rely on Damon Henkle, Todd Harlow, Mark Falor, Bart Cassidy and Heather Greene in singles, and frequently will use Nicholas and Oliver Ionesco and Jay Sanders in doubles.

"I'm blessed this year," Howard said. "This will be the first year I have enough players to use more than the five singles players for the matches.

"On a given day, a school's top two players can beat one another, but we're strong in number three, four and five singles and number two doubles - that can make the difference."