Hernando baseball coach Tim Sims expected this situation all along.
Before teams played their first games, Sims predicted there would be no clear-cut favorite to win Class 4A, District 8. And going into today's tournament at Zephyrhills, Sims seems correct in his prediction. Every team has a record around .500, no team is undefeated in the district, and the hottest team entering the tournament has the worst record of the bunch.
"It's up for grabs," Sims said. "It's wide open and everybody knows it."
All the coaches agree that never has the district been so equal. Teams have taken turns beating each other, and often the wins have been close. A perfect example came when Hudson (13-12 overall, 6-2 in 4A-8) captured the No. 1 seed after Zephyrhills, 1-7 in the district, defeated Pasco (12-11, 5-3) and dropped the Pirates to the No. 2 seed. Central and Hernando, both 4-4 in the district, had to compare records against the top team before Central was declared the No. 3 seed.
Central coach Gary Buel, who expected to struggle with a young team, has been surprised by the season's outcome.
"I've been doing this for a number of years and this is the most parity I've seen in the area; everybody's got a chunk of somebody," Buel said. "I've never seen it where you could say any team has a chance."
While Central and Hernando each finished the season quietly _ Hernando went 1-1 last week while Central finished 0-2 _ host Zephyrhills has several coaches concerned. The Bulldogs, 10-17 overall, saved their best baseball for this home stretch. They have won five straight games heading into the tournament opener against Hernando tonight at 7. Sims, who picked the Bulldogs to lead the district at the beginning of the year, is now seeing that projection come to fruition.
"I picked Zephyrhills as a favorite because the tournament is at their place and they match up as well as everybody else," Sims said. "I liked them from the beginning."
The Leopards enter the tournament as unpredictable as ever. They have proven that even with their ace, Kyle Tuttle, on the mound, they can win or lose by 10 runs. In their final game of the year, the Leopards lost to county rival Springstead 12-2 with Tuttle on the mound. Hernando gave up 15 hits, five walks and one hit batter in the loss.
While the pitching has been fickle, Hernando's hitters have started to come into a grove. Tuttle has steadily been hitting over .400, as has freshman Dee Brown, who has been a solid source for RBIs in the third spot. When the team has put together a solid performance by Tuttle with timely hitting, it has been unbeatable. The task will be to duplicate the effort tonight.
"We're right about where I expected," Sims said. "To say that we're pleased with it, no. We're going to get on the bus and see what happens and that's their attitude too."
The Bears have surprised opponents with an upstart group of pitchers. They had only one pitcher with any kind of experience coming into this season: Rejean Savard with six innings of varsity knowledge. But the young staff has combined to give Central some unexpected wins and Buel hope for the post-season.
Hitting has come predominantly from three sources: juniors Brian Lescalzo, Jon Savarese and Steven Welch. All have batted around .400 to keep the Bears in the higher-scoring games. The Bears beat Land O'Lakes 16-10 on Wednesday, but lost their last two games. Buel is hoping that is a short-lived trend for his youngsters.
"We've gotten some mileage out of some guys; I was not sure what they would do," Buel said. "Most have responded well, even with the lack of experience."
SPRINGSTEAD READY: The Eagles have fine-tuned their lineup and seem ready to enter the Class 5A, District 8 tournament.
Some inconsistency and injuries forced Springstead to move around its players the past couple of weeks, but the Eagles have been playing solid baseball with a revamped defense.
Third baseman Brian Melko aggravated a muscle strain in his right shoulder "that comes and goes," said coach Tony Zefiretto, and is gone for the year. In his place, Jim Holtje has shored up third and Jeff Samek has moved from second to shortstop. Utility player John Grice has taken over at second.
Zefiretto said that since he made the adjustments, the players have started to accept their positions and play their roles.
"We're settling down at this point," he said. "We know which players are going to step up in the clutch. I think we have the group ready."
Springstead, the No. 3 seed in the tournament, played its first game Tuesday night at Ridgewood against Gulf, which is 1-9 in the district (see section C for results). The Eagles (17-11) have played competitively against Tarpon Springs and Ridgewood, but unlike Class 4A, District 8, there is a clear favorite: Ridgewood.
The Rams, 9-1 in the district, have bullied every team in the field. Springstead, however, did not play up to its potential the last time the teams met. Zefiretto said the team has eliminated some of those nagging problems and promises to be a stronger force in the post-season.
"When you're in the tournament you try to turn it up a notch," he said. "Now its district time; this is what you shoot for all year."
WHERE: Zephyrhills High School.
SCHEDULE: Today _ Hernando vs. Zephyrhills, 7 p.m. Thursday _ Pasco vs. Central, 4 p.m.; Hudson vs. Hernando-Zephyrhills winner, 7 p.m. Friday _ Championship, 7:30 p.m.
WHAT TO WATCH: Zephyrhills (10-17) comes in as the hottest team, having won five straight. Hudson is the top seed and has sophomore pitcher Chris Way (8-3) and two of the county's top five hitters in Ken Davis (.446) and Derrick Victor (.439). Pasco has the county's top hitter in Ron Croson (.493, 3 HR, 21 RBI).