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Z'hills, Saddlebrook likely to be also-rans

Zephyrhills boys tennis coach Bill Linderman remembers the seeding meeting from the 1995 state tennis tournament, when he took the Hudson girls. He remembers Ping-Pong balls being drawn from a hat. He remembers seeing a lot of number ones matched up with his overmatched Hudson players.

"When I took the Hudson girls, we drew five No. 1 seeds," Linderman said. "We got mauled. This time, I'd love to be in the middle of each position."

Linderman will find out his team's seedings and matchups at 5 p.m. today in the Lakeland Jenkins High School Media Center. The Bulldogs are set to take the court Wednesday at Lakeland's Edgewood Courts for opening day of the two-day Class 4A state tournament, a first for the program.

Zephyrhills beat Lecanto 5-2 in Friday's regional to earn the trip. Realistically, most of the Bulldogs players may have won for the last time considering the talent at the Class 4A meet.

Gainesville Eastside is a Central Florida power, Jesuit is Hillsborugh County's best, Titusville Astronaut has won three state titles (the last in 1994), and Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons is a private school wonder, having won the last three 4A state championships and nine titles since 1980.

Behind the strong play of No. 1 singles player Fernando Mantese and No. 2 Chris Black (the pair also are a top doubles team), the Bulldogs compiled a 9-5 record. But many of those losses came early when Black wasn't playing full-time, and Zephyrhills clearly peaked at the proper time, winning every district championship match and cruising past Lecanto.

Now matched with the very best in the state, Linderman is hoping the strong finish continues. "We're at eight (out of eight teams) right now, and I'd like to see us get fifth," he said. "If we place fifth overall, I'd be ecstatic.

"The two guys I think will do well are Black at No. 2 singles and Josh (Hinkle) at No. 4, and our No. 1 doubles team (Black and Mantese). They're real strong at those positions. Potentially, that's where we could score the most points. But if we draw No. 1 or No. 2 seeds, we could come home a lot sooner than we wanted."

The Saddlebrook boys and girls begin play today. In years past, it was assumed the Spartans would contend for a state championship. That is unlikely this year, however.

While coach Mike Summers said his decision not to play the academy's top international and state-ranked players made for a more interesting district tournament, it will certainly make for a less competitive state tournament. Two-time state champion Ranson Everglades will compete, but Bradenton Academy, state champion four of the last five years and eight times overall since 1981, boasts a host of international stars and is expected to win again.

Behind Yasu Minoda's three-set win at No. 1 singles, Saddlebrook coasted past the Panthers. The girls did likewise, beating Lakeland Christian 7-0 as Jennifer Mitchell and Katie Thompson posted wins at Nos. 1 and 2 singles respectively and teamed for a win at No. 1 doubles.

_ Times staff writer John C. Cotey contributed to this report.