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Cowboys still puzzle, but they fit

They were a season-long puzzle. Only the pieces never seemed to fit.

The Gaither Cowboys were supposed to have a decent lineup. But twice they were victims of no-hitters. They were the defending Saladino Tournament champions. Last month's return trip? Two and out.

Heading into last week's Class 6A, District 5 tournament, the Cowboys were merely an afterthought. So what happened? What else?

Gaither Cowboys, district champions.

"It has been a roller-coaster ride all right," Gaither coach Frank Permuy said. "It seemed like every time we had a tough game, we folded. People were talking about us, but not the kind of talk you like to hear. We couldn't hit consistently. We couldn't win the close games. That kind of stuff.

"But you know what? That's all in the past. You might say that was spring training. We're still around. And I'd rather be playing well this time of year. If we get on a roll now, who knows what can happen?"

Gaither (16-8) has a chance for revenge tonight when it hosts the Bloomingdale Bulls (16-9) in the 6A, North I Region quarterfinal game at 7:30.

Bloomingdale already has two memorable victories over Gaither. On March 3, Bulls pitcher Travis West beat Gaither with a 1-0 no-hitter. And on April 4, Bloomingdale thrashed Gaither 15-5, the most runs allowed by the Cowboys since 1986.

"I'd call it a special game for us," Permuy said. "K.B. (Scull, the Bloomingdale coach) and I are great friends. Certainly, we have incentive to beat Bloomingdale. It's tough to beat a team three times, so maybe this will be the charm for us.

"They're an excellent, excellent ballclub. But I think we are too, now that we're rounding into form. I just want us to keep playing well."

That's what happened last week when Gaither reached the district final by beating Chamberlain and King. Everything clicked Friday night: Gaither crushed top-seeded Tampa Bay Tech 18-4. It was the fourth district baseball title in Gaither history, along with 1990, '91 and '96.

Permuy relies on the senior leadership of Danny Giordano and Shevin Craine, who alternate between pitcher and third base, catcher Mike Chevalier (team-leading four home runs), first baseman Brad Wester, centerfielder Jared Crandon and rightfielder Tommy Carrow.

Gaither's junior starters are leftfielder Brian Fisher, plus shortstop Mike Macaluso and second baseman Donnie Kirschner (who both started as sophomores).

Craine (5-3), a power pitcher, is scheduled to start tonight because Giordano (9-3) had the victory over TBT.

"It's a good group of kids who, I think, are starting to come together," Permuy said. "They realize what's at stake. There are no stars here (no Gaither player bats above .350), but stats aren't what matter. You've got to play together and get hot at the right time.

"With all that happened to us this season, I was telling the guys that we just need to win three straight games and we're at Legends Field (for the 6A state tournament). That's baseball. You get a little confidence, start hitting the ball in the right spots, and things will happen for you."

Finally, the pieces are starting to fit.