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Sickles a threat to Knights

Since the Florida High School Activities Association decided mid-year to move Hillsborough County's Sickles High School from Class 4A to 5A, and since it lumped the Gryphons in with District 8, Pasco County teams have managed to avoid getting burned by the new and unseen district foe. That may change.

The first-year school has been the eighth seed in all the winter and spring district tournaments so far because it plays none of the district teams. Most coaches aren't pleased with that setup, but Sickles has yet to pull off any major upsets.

Softball may be another story, because quite simply, Sickles is good. Good enough that if it had played in the district, it would be seeded among the top three teams, and maybe at the top.

River Ridge lost just two district games, and yet draws the toughest matchup of this week's 5A-8 district tournament. It meets Sickles tonight at 6 in the second of three games to open the tournament.

"They're a pretty good ballclub," said coach Ernie Beck. "(The seeding) is a little unfortunate, but that's the way it goes. It's a little bit unfair, but we should have been seeded first if we would have beaten Ridgewood (April 9)."

There are ominous signs everywhere for River Ridge. The Royal Knights lost to Gaither twice; Sickles beat Gaither to win the Western Conference championship. River Ridge hasn't been able to stop other teams from scoring runs lately; Sickles has.

The ominous sign for Sickles: River Ridge is still the best hitting team in the district. And it is coming off a huge win over Hudson on Thursday that gave the Royal Knights a share of the Sunshine Athletic Conference championship with Ridgewood. The Knights trailed 4-0 but rallied to a 7-4 win.

"That was a big come-from-behind victory," Beck said. "The girls feel pretty good. They knew the conference championship was on the line."

While the 5A-8 district is a toss-up _ as many as four teams could win it _ the 4A-8 tournament at Pasco has a clear-cut favorite. Hernando is the No. 1 seed and needs to win just one game to advance to next Tuesday's regionals.

While the Leopards have been the class of the district this season, it has not always been by a wide margin. They will meet the winner of tonight's game between Pasco and Zephyrhills on Wednesday. Hernando has handled the Bulldogs this season, but slipped past Pasco by 5-3 and 3-1 scores.

"We had them both times and they scored late in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings to win it," said coach Jim Ward. "We showed we can play with them."

Hernando's stiffest challenge, though, will come from the winner of the Hudson-Central semifinal. The Bears have beaten Hernando, the only team in the district to do so, and the schools share a harsh rivalry.

Hudson will be looking to bounce back from Thursday's disappointing loss to River Ridge in which it could have grabbed a first-ever SAC softball title with a win. The Cobras split with Central this season but lost to Hernando 5-1 back in February, and were drilled 11-1 in the last meeting three weeks ago.

Pitcher Jesse Clougher and third baseman Tera Stefan lead the young Cobras, who have posted the best season in school history for the second straight year.