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Hurricanes head cautiously into uncharted district territory

The bisection of the Gulf Coast Conference has again created an interesting situation for North Suncoast high school sports programs. Citrus High enters the Class 3A, District 9 girls basketball tournament as the No. 1 seed, but the Hurricanes haven't faced most of the district teams.

"I'm real scared about (the semifinals). Seven of the nine teams in the district are unknown to me," said Citrus coach Bruce Nelson, whose team played only Hernando and Central during the regular season.

The GCC, which originally comprised all North Suncoast schools, split into two conferences entering this school year. Citrus, Lecanto, Crystal River, Central and Hernando formed the new GCC, while Springstead joined the seven Pasco schools to form the Sunshine Athletic Conference.

But while the conference split in two, several district alignments remained intact. Meanwhile, budget cuts restricted several teams to playing conference schedules only. Thus, most of the GCC girls basketball teams did not play the SAC teams in the regular season.

More specifically, Citrus did not face Zephyrhills. The Hurricanes posted a 19-2 regular-season record while Zephyrhills went 20-5, with most losses to state-ranked 3A and 4A teams. Both went undefeated in their respective conferences.

The two are seeded 1-2 in the tournament, which begins tonight with games between the four lowest seeds played at individual sites. Zephyrhills hosts the remainder of the tournament Thursday through Saturday.

Citrus is in the catbird seat with the top seed. Not only is Zephyrhills on the other side of the bracket, but so is Hernando, which lost two of three games this season to Citrus, but won the most recent contest last week by one point.

"We're very, very happy about that," Nelson said of the No. 1 seed. "It will make the road to the finals a little bit easier. We're happy that we won't have to play Zephyrhills or Hernando on Friday night. We'd much rather play them for the championship, not in the semifinals.

"We've been preparing for Zephyrhills since October 15 (the first day of practice). Zephyrhills knocked us out of districts last year in the semifinals. Everything we've done all year has been to prepare for them.

Nelson would rather face the known than the unknown Saturday.

"We know we can beat Hernando," he said. "We've done that twice. Hernando isn't someone that's going to outclass us; we know that in our hearts about Hernando. But we don't know that in our hearts about Zephyrhills.

"They're the exact same team that beat us by 17 points in districts last year, and I only have three people back from last year's varsity."

That's virtually true; the Bulldogs lost only one starter from last year's district championship team.

Zephyrhills coach Ernie Pittman knows that his team will probably have to beat Hernando before it can look to Citrus. And that won't be an easy task. Hernando was the only North Suncoast team to hand Zephyrhills a loss this year.

Zephyrhills punished the Leopards 64-42 in the teams' first meeting Dec. 4. But the Bulldogs looked flat and shot horribly in a 54-35 loss to Hernando on Jan. 9.

Pittman isn't taking anything for granted.

"(There are) five teams with 16 or more wins overall _ that's pretty tough," he said. "And most of the others are around the .500 mark. I think in our bracketing we'll have as tough a time as we can handle. The road we have to hoe is pretty tough.

"Citrus is in Inverness, and that's a long way from here. That's the way we're looking at the final. It's a long way from here too. We're taking it one game at a time."

_ Times staff writer Joanne Korth contributed to this report.

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