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This season, the youngsters will have to shine

If the old axiom of "we'll go as far as our pitching takes us" holds true this spring, then most baseball coaches at high schools in Citrus and Hernando counties have to wonder what the future has in store for their teams.

Graduation stripped experienced pitching at Central, Crystal River and Lecanto, leaving coaches at those schools little choice but to wait for the development of younger arms.

The situation is a little different for Hernando High coach Ernie Chatman. He has ample returnees, but needs a player or two to provide leadership lost to graduation.

Citrus and Springstead appear to have the best depth on their pitching staffs among the six schools in the two counties. But the Eagles have little power on their roster and are switching over from the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference to the Sunshine Athletic Conference, which may be tougher as a whole, and Citrus will back up its pitchers with a defense that includes two freshmen and four sophomore starters.

Five of the six coaches can begin to assess what they have when their clubs open the season either Monday or Tuesday. Crystal River's Joe Buccheri must wait until Feb. 25 when his Pirates begin the season at Gulf High.

Central

1991 finish: 14-12.

Classification: 3A-9.

Coach: Gary Buel.

Top returnees: Kirk Sereda (Sr., SS/P), T.J. Tinch (Sr., C/P), Tim Lecoz (Sr., 1B/P), Kevin Grover (Sr., 3B/OF), Brock Callison (Jr., OF).

Outlook: Central may be the biggest unknown factor in its district. The Bears graduated all of their experienced varsity pitchers and must also improve on their .234 team batting average from last spring.

"I don't think the record was indicative," Buel said. "We started off 12-5, then had all kinds of injuries that put four starters out near the end of the year. If we'd stayed injury-free who knows what would have happened."

Buel said the Bears will be strong up the middle whenever his lineup has Tinch behind the plate, Sereda at shortstop and Callison in center field. Sereda missed three games with a broken jaw at the end of last season, but still led the team with 16 stolen bases. Callison had 13 thefts and topped the Bears in runs scored (27) and walks (23).

Grover is still tied up with wrestling and will be a stabilizing influence when he joins the team on a varsity squad that includes six seniors, three juniors, three sophomores and two freshmen.

The bulk of the pitching probably will be handled by Lecoz, Sereda and Hernando transfer Sheldon Robinson. Robinson is a sophomore who played JV ball with the Leopards last year.

Citrus

1991 finish: 14-15.

Classification: 3A-9.

Coach: Mike Bocock.

Top returnees: Nick Pasiuk (Sr., P), Jason Cuneo (Sr., DH), Damon Bogart (Sr., UT).

Outlook: Bocock isn't fudging when he says his team is young this season.

Bocock, in his second year at Citrus, is drawing on much of the talent from last year's 14-4 junior varsity squad. The Hurricanes will start two freshmen (shortstop Gary Whitelaw and catcher Todd Fehrenbach) and four sophomores.

Bocock sees a strong pitching staff led by Pasiuk, junior transfer student Brad Blair and senior Chad McDaniel, who added 10 pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame during the offseason, and is throwing his fastball in the low 80-mile-per-hour range.

"I'm pleased with our pitching and defense right now," Bocock said. "And that's the key to winning games."

Crystal River

1991 finish: 13-13.

Classification: 2A-8.

Coach: Joe Buccheri.

Top returnees: Mike Russ (Sr., OF/P), Marty House (Sr., C).

Outlook: Buccheri finds himself in a unique position due to heavy attrition. Of 32 players to fill out his varsity and junior varsity teams, 25 are freshmen or sophomores.

"They have a beautiful future ahead of them," Buccheri said. "How fast they mature and develop may surprise people. We'll have to remain patient with them due to their young category.

"On the positive side, we have a lot of talent. We'll have a lot of good JV pitching and possibly by the end of the season some of it could be up on the varsity."

The work ethic among the young Pirates is good despite so much inexperience at the varsity level. Buccheri said if there's any area of strength at this point it's on defense. The hitting will need plenty of work.

Freshman Jason Russ, Mike's brother, is a catcher and infielder expected to make the varsity team.

There also are three seniors to help solidfy the starting lineup. Outfielder Chris Stetler and outfielder and pitcher Brian Minor saw some action last year. Senior outfielder and pitcher Chris Anderson is a first-year player.

Junior pitcher and first baseman Sammy Rowe also returns.

Hernando

1991 finish: 19-8-1.

Classification: 3A-9.

Coach: Ernie Chatman.

Top returnees: Landon Hesler (Jr., P/OF), Buddy Keegan (Sr., OF), Tom Valdez (Jr., C), Brent Stents (Jr., P).

Outlook: Last year, Hernando caught many people by surprise by going all the way to the district title game before falling to Ridgewood.

"We never dreamed of doing that last year," Chatman said. "A lot of good things happened, like no injuries, which is certainly something you can't predict. On paper, I feel like we should do well, although we lost some valuable components in three seniors who were instrumental in our success.

"They were excellent team leaders and we're searching to fill that void. We have good numbers coming back, but we'll need leadership to be successful over a long period of time."

While looking to guard against overconfidence based on the 1991 performance, Chatman's returning Leopards are coming off excellent seasons.

Hesler hit .352 with 7 homers, 30 RBI and on the mound was 6-3 with a 1.82 ERA. Keegan hit .310 and stole 27 bases and Valdez batted .275 and drove in 11 runs. Stents was 4-2 on the hill with one save and a 3.01 ERA.

Chatman will get his first look at the Leopards in game competition in a four-team tournament at Hernando High beginning Tuesday. Central faces Lecanto in the opener at 4 p.m., and Hernando plays South Sumter at 7 p.m.

Lecanto

1991 finish: 10-14.

Classification: 2A-8.

Coach: Jim Manos.

Top returnees: Bill Brady (Jr., C), Willis O'Steen (Jr., P/1B), Michael Lingle (Sr., SS/2B), Michael Boldt (Sr., IF).

Outlook: Lecanto lost eight players to graduation, including three-quarters of the starting infield and top pitcher Chris Sancrante, who was 8-2. But Manos' hopes are bolstered by 63 boys out, an indication the program is on the right track.

One of the newcomers to watch is junior Frank Fritz, an outfielder Manos is working to convert into a pitcher. Fritz transferred from Sachem High on Long Island where he played two years of JV ball in a program Manos regards as "top notch." Fritz hit .361 last year with just five strikeouts in 43 plate appearances for Sachem's JV, which went 22-2.

"One thing we're working to improve on is our batting averages," Manos said. "We only hit .259 last year.

"We're also going to have new faces in the infield at third, short and second. We're going to be Question Mark and the Mysterians there and I'm not sure what will happen when we come under fire."

O'Steen is the only experienced pitcher, so a successful switch to the hill by Fritz will help immensely. Boldt hit .324 with 15 stolen bases and Brady batted .315 with 11 stolen bases in 11 tries and a .472 on-base percentage last spring so those two will be asked to carry a large portion of the offensive load until the pitching comes together.

Springstead

1991 finish: 17-12.

Classification: 3A-9.

Coach: Chuck Moehle.

Top returnees: Jeff Zielinski (Sr., P/SS/OF), Matt Weber (Sr., P/OF), Brian Nestor (Sr., P/SS), Matt Klasnick (Sr., C).

Outlook: Springstead graduated much of the power that helped it to co-champion honors with Gulf at 12-4 in the Gulf Coast Conference last year. But a well-charged battery to build a team around leaves good reason for optimism on the part of Moehle.

"Four of our top five pitchers including the top three starters are back and they all play in the middle of our defense which is crucial," Moehle said. "We've lost some power so I think we'll be a different type of team. We'll have to put the ball in play, move it around and run the bases aggressively since we're not a power team."

Zielinski could be one of the top hurlers on the North Suncoast this spring. Last year, he went 7-4 with a 1.03 ERA and had 91 strikeouts and 12 walks in 67 innings.

Weber was 5-2 with a 1.50 ERA, Nestor 1-2 and 3.30. Klasnick had a .265 batting average and 16 RBI at backstop.

Other starters returning are outfielders Matt Florio and Michael Garofano.

The Eagles lost their first three games last year, then bounced back to go 17-9. They'll have to remain hungry and motivated now that they're playing in the Sunshine Athletic Conference with schools in Pasco County.

Springstead opens its season Monday at 4 p.m. against Ridgewood in the Pasco County tournament.

_ Correspondents Terry Organ and Stephen Kaplan contributed to this report.

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