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Citrus, Lecanto likely finalists _ if they are careful

There has been much talk this season about a Class 4A, District 7 final involving the area's two best teams, Lecanto and Citrus. One could even speculate about the possibility of them meeting in the state final.

That's all fine and dandy for fans, but that same kind of thinking could be deadly for the Panthers and Hurricanes.

Despite their success this season, No. 1-seeded Lecanto and No. 2 Citrus face major hurdles before their likely showdown. The slightest slip-up could bring a disappointing end to a season with so much promise.

"Dunnellon is pretty scary," Hurricanes coach Larry Bishop said of Citrus' opponent in Wednesday's district semifinals. "When they are on, they're a pretty good ballclub. But I think our girls know that and I think they're ready. If they're not, we'll be turning in our uniforms early."

For many, that would be unthinkable, especially after the Hurricanes' run to the Class 5A state finals a year ago. However, Citrus knows it is more than possible. In fact, the Hurricanes (21-8, 6-2) sustained a March 31 loss to Dunnellon that relegated Citrus to second seed status.

That loss may have been the low point for the Hurricanes, because they have rebounded nicely since. In their last two starts, both wins, they seemed to find the intensity missing during much of the season.

"We've picked it up over the last two weeks," Bishop said. "We only gave up two earned runs last week and we've played excellent defense. We finished against Hernando (7-0 win) and Gina (Reynolds) threw a one-hit shutout and we had 14 hits."

Lecanto, meanwhile, must wait and see who emerges from today's 6 p.m. play-in game between fifth-seeded Lake Weir and Crystal River (No. 4). The Pirates (9-14, 2-6) have beaten Lake Weir twice and could be a potentially scary matchup for the Panthers (23-3, 7-1) should they advance.

The two teams have met four times, with Lecanto getting the upper hand in each. However, the Pirates are getting closer as the scores _ 16-0, 7-0, 6-0, 3-0 _ seem to indicate.

"We're definitely playing better ball," Pirates coach Laura Wingate said. "We're playing better defense and that's helping our pitching. It would be nice (to beat Lecanto), but for now we are concentrating on Lake Weir. We'll worry about Lecanto if we get that far."

Panthers coach Amy Lilley, who guided Lecanto to the 4A state title in 1996, takes a similar approach, preferring to wait rather than speculate.

"Whenever you play a team five times, it's always hard," she said.

After splitting the regular-season series with the Hurricanes (both teams won on the road), Lecanto comes in as the No. 1 seed because of Citrus' loss to Dunnellon. However, don't take that to mean the Panthers backed into the role.

Lecanto has been as hot as any team in the area this year and has wins over all of the top teams (Hernando, Citrus, Dunnellon, Central) and a Gulf Coast Athletic Conference title to prove it. The Panthers took home fifth place in last weekend's Rams Classic and also boast the area's best overall record, not to mention its most dominant pitcher in Michelle Rowe (0.32 ERA, 218 strikeouts).

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