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Jesuit looks to take final step

The Jesuit Tigers have cruised through the post-season, but they're expecting rougher waters this week.

Jesuit swept through the Class 4A, District 12 tournament, then overwhelmed Lake Gibson 7-0 in Friday's regional. When the 4A state tournament begins Wednesday in Lakeland, though, the Tigers will enter a draw filled with state- and nationally-ranked players.

"We know what we're getting into," Jesuit coach Joe Curtis said. "But we feel we're prepared for it."

Curtis intentionally stacked the Jesuit schedule this season, taking lumps from the likes of Thom Howard and Bradenton Academy. The Tigers were an underwhelming 7-6 in dual matches, but the experience can't be quantified.

"We're going to give it our best," said freshman Sebring Sierra, Jesuit's No. 2 player. "Our whole attitude has been, "Don't lose any stupid matches. Don't take anyone lightly.'

"Our goal has been to reach the state tournament. We think we have a good enough team to be a contender there."

Jesuit has been the state runner-up in two of the past three seasons. Curtis expects a similar nemesis _ defending state champion Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons.

"In the past it has been Cardinal Gibbons, then a little drop-off to us, then a big drop-off," Curtis said. "We'd like to see more parity. Maybe someone can help us this time.

"It could drift into a dual match between us and Cardinal Gibbons. And if they're better, they're better. But I think with the tough schedule we've played, there's got to be some benefits. This team has grown up a lot."

And it's still amazingly young.

Senior Andrew Laflin is No. 1. He's a four-time district champion, a three-time state runner-up.

So does Sierra, the No. 2 who qualified the past two seasons while at Berkeley Prep. Curtis expects big things from No. 3 Taylor Ralph, a freshman who could be one of Jesuit's best by the time he's finished.

Sophomore Richard Sola is at No. 4, while sophomore David Wilson is at No. 5. "And David Wilson was hurt most of last season, so I consider him a freshman," Curtis said.

Jesuit might receive its biggest return in 1999 or 2000 when the Tigers might be the state's team to beat. For now, though, Curtis lives in the present.

"Right now, this might be the best team since I've been here," Curtis said. "We're pretty top-heavy. At the top three spots, those kids can really play.

"When you go from district or regionals to state, that's like a different world. Everybody has a ranking. Everybody knows the other players, who they beat, who they lost to. It's very, very competitive.

"But we geared our whole season toward playing the best and steadily improving. It will probably be tough, but we feel we've prepared properly."

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