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It's left to Ridgewood to send Sickles packing

Sickles is the outsider, like the stranger in a western who comes into town by night and starts blowing people away by day.

That said, Ridgewood would be the sheriff, the last team standing, hoping to preserve the county against the threat.

Today at 7 p.m., then, would be the climactic showdown in the middle of the dusty road in the middle of town (U.S. 41?) as the two teams meet for the Class 5A, District 8 softball championship at Land O'Lakes.

"We were hoping Land O'Lakes would win last night so we could have had an all-Pasco County final," said Ridgewood coach Marlyn Bavetta. "But that's fine."

The Gryphons (17-5) knocked off the No. 3-seeded Gators Wednesday, one night after knocking off No. 2 seed River Ridge. Sickles is the tournament's No. 7 seed but maybe its best team, the result of being put in District 8 after being bumped up from Class 4A to 5A in mid-year by the Florida High School Activities Association because of soaring enrollment numbers.

Fair? No, says everyone including Sickles coach Tammy Overcash.

"I've had people come up to me at school and say that it is a real disadvantage to us," said Overcash. "But I say I don't really know who it's a disadvantage for."

For the Gryphons, the Western Conference champions of Hillsborough County, it means taking a low seed and having to play the best teams in the district to get this far. For the rest of the teams, it means playing a tough district schedule all year, earning the No. 2 or No. 3 seed, which usually warrants an easy first-round game, only to have to beat a very good team instead.

"Sickles shouldn't be in here," Bavetta said, "but it's not their fault."

The Rams will try to salvage the tournament for Pasco County by winning their first district title since 1995. The Rams blanked Gulf 8-0 in the semifinals as everyone had at least one hit, and Amy Birch pitched a four-hitter.

The Rams are 16-11, but were 2-5 in highly competitive tournaments in Auburndale and Hudson. They also lost a 2-1 game to Seminole last week. Bavetta thinks her team, which seems to have all the pieces but sometimes is unsure how to put them together, has benefited from the tough schedule and is ready to live up to expectations.

"Hopefully we're starting to peak," Bavetta said. "From the beginning we just wanted to be competitive. We're 16-11 and so far that's fine. We are where we need to be.

"We at times are our own worst enemy. When we lost to Gulf (earlier this year) we lost to ourselves. It took them this long to have the confidence they need to win."

Birch (7-3) will likely pitch tonight, although she is hampered by a sore knee. Offensively, the Rams expect to hit the ball against Gryphons pitchers Andrea Springer and Julie Henneke. They pounded out 15 hits against Gulf, and hit a half-dozen other shots right at fielders for outs.

Brittany Fischer, Chrissy Bavetta, Bethann Blankenship and Birch are all hitting over .300, and clean-up hitter Brandy Krieg leads the team with 25 RBI, eight doubles and two home runs.

"I think playing Seminole and Winter Haven and Tiffany Martin is going to help us (with Sickles' faster pitching)," Bavetta said. "They are a typical Hillsborough County team in that they use their speed. They have a solid nucleus. But I'm very pleased with where we are right now. And we tend to get up for the better teams."