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Tampa Bay Smokers on fire in a short time

They have a bevy of players who are Olympic material and they play in a plush complex deep in tradition.

The Tampa Bay Smokers, indeed, have an embarrassment of riches. That's what happens when you are the defending Amateur Softball Association National Champions and are ranked No. 2 in the world by the International Softball Congress.

It means everything. The Smokers, who have gone from rank-and-file to being ranked among the best, are a model of consistency, attracting top-notch players. Since making its debut five years ago, Tampa Bay has risen rapidly through fast-pitch circles, gaining notoriety, not only in the area but around the world.

It started two years ago when the Smokers won the ISC World Championship and continued last year when they won the ASA National tournament, hosted by their rival, the Clearwater Bombers.

Tampa Bay benefitted from its success. Eight players _ David Boys, Scott Deuel, Jason Hanson, Michael Mink, Trent Rubley, Shawn Rychik, Steve Schott and Doug Sleep _ were selected to try out at the U.S. Pan American Olympic Festival Camp. held May 20-24 in Sioux City, Iowa.

Manager Peter Porcelli Jr., was selected as one of the coaches for the camp. In addition, five other players _ Rob Gray, Todd King, Todd Martin, Brian Paton and Darren Zack _ were chosen for the Canadian National Team for the Pan-American games, along with assistant coach Terry Baytor. (Martin will not participate so he can retain his post-season eligibility with the Smokers).

While it seems there's nothing left for the Smokers to conquer, they have an unusual goal this season. Given the chance to win the ISC World Championship or the ASA National Tournament, they'll take both.

Tampa Bay is trying to become the fourth team to win both titles in the same year. It also would be the first time a team accomplished that feat since restrictions were levied against the use of foreign players two years ago.

The restrictions _ two out-of-state pitchers are allowed in ISC and no foreign players are allowed in ASA _ hurt the Smokers. Even so, they prepared for the limitations by getting Zack, regarded as one of the best pitchers in the world, to become a U.S. citizen.

"It seems they're trying to legislate the really high-profile teams," Porcelli Jr. said. "But we fully expect to cooperate. At some point we're going to have American players only and recruit strictly on a local basis. But we're focused on winning and losing and proving we're as good as advertised. I think we have a legitimate shot at winning the titles."

This weekend, Tampa Bay gets an early indication of how good its title chances are. The Smokers open their season with doubleheaders Friday and Saturday against the St. Louis GMC Dealers, ranked 13th in the world by ISC. The first game of Friday's doubleheader starts at 7:30; Saturday's starts at 7.

All home games will be played at Bomber Stadium on Old Coachman and Drew Street in Clearwater. Tickets are $3 and children under 12 are admitted free.