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Young team among strangers in post-season

(ran NTP edition)

A season of firsts has prepared Bob Pagano well.

As coach of first-year Sickles High School baseball team, Pagano guided his squad through practices, games and a Saladino tournament with surprising success.

At 13-9, the Gryphons have surpassed expectations as they prepare for their first post-season. But the Class 5A-8 district tournament will present new challenges, as Sickles faces opponents it has not seen during the season.

Because Sickles' student population wound up being much higher than originally estimated, the Florida High School Activities Association reassigned the school out of Class 4A in the middle of basketball season. But the schedule was already set, so the baseball team played Hillsborough 4A opponents during the season.

But for the playoffs, Sickles will venture to Ridgewood High in New Port Richey, in Pasco County, where the tournament begins Tuesday. Pagano said not being familiar with the competition could work to his team's advantage.

"We know as much about them as they do about us," he said. "It'll be tough for us coming in as a new team with no seniors, but it evens out.

"We have nothing to lose. I'd be more nervous being them having to play us."

Sickles, the seventh seed, faces second-seed Tarpon Springs on Tuesday at 8 p.m. In earlier games, fourth-seed Land O'Lakes plays fifth-seed River Ridge at 2 p.m., followed by third-seed Springstead against sixth-seed Gulf at 5 p.m. Top-seed Ridgewood gets a bye and faces the winner of the Land O'Lakes-River Ridge matchup Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.

"We're confident," said Pagano, whose team closed the season with one win in three games at the Saladino tournament. "We're pleased with what we've done so far. Going into this year, we wanted to be competitive and realistically looked at being .500, so we've really enjoyed this, and now we're looking at doing a little more."

Wharton also gets its first taste of district baseball this week when the Class 4A-12 tournament begins at Jesuit.

The Wildcats, 6-15 and seeded fifth, play fourth-seed Robinson at 4 p.m. Monday. Third-seeded Palm Harbor University plays Blake at 7:30 p.m.

Tuesday, second seed Osceola faces the PHU-Blake winner at 4 p.m., and top-seeded Jesuit plays the Wharton-Robinson winner at 7:30 p.m.

The Wildcats, who defeated Robinson during the season, ended the season with a loss at Hillsborough after winning once during the Saladino tournament. The win was a wild 20-11 affair against Leto that saw the Wildcats put up 18 hits and three home runs, including two from sophomore catcher Joey Livingston.

Gaither, meanwhile, hosts the Class 6A-5 tournament. The Cowboys, the third seed, face sixth-seed Chamberlain at 4 p.m. Monday. King plays No. 7 Leto at 8 p.m.

On Tuesday, fourth-seed East Lake and fifth-seed Hillsborough square off at 4 p.m. Top-seeded Tampa Bay Tech will play the winner of the East Lake-Hillsborough game at 8 p.m. The other semifinal game is at 4 p.m.

The Cowboys (13-8), who look to erase memories of a first-round district exit a year ago, enter the tournament with questionable depth yet some offensive punch.

"We only have five seniors on this team, and they'll have to come through for us," said Gaither coach Frank Permuy. "We started the season strong and then kind of had a letdown midway through."

After two quick losses in the Saladino tournament, the Cowboys rebounded to close the season with an eight-inning victory against Plant, the Saladino champion. Gaither enters the tournament with lineup changes that have helped produce three .300 hitters, led by senior outfielder Josh Crandon's .333. Senior catcher Mike Chevalier has been solid defensively while leading the Cowboys with three home runs.

"We've gone through our slump, and the Plant win boosted our spirits," Permuy said. "The kids are working hard but sometimes that doesn't come through in the results.

"But the good thing is that sometimes it does, and that's what high school baseball is all about."