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Lions look to past for inspiration

Coaches don't generally like to look back, but Eddie Stabile may be an exception. He will use last year's team as a testament to playing a tough schedule, to playing together and to growing as a team.

It's not only a testament, it's a blueprint that Stabile thinks will bring his team back _ and perhaps beyond _ the Southern Region championship game, the place where the Lions' season came to an end just a few innings short of the Division II College World Series.

"We did some things (last year) I wasn't sure this team could do," Stabile said. "Then as I watched them play some tough teams and come close in some one-run games, I started to think this team could do anything, that they were good enough to win a championship. I remember telling them that.

"And I told this team, you've got just as good a chance as that team."

The Lions, ranked No. 30 in the country, return six starters from last year's 35-22 team, which advanced further than any team in school history. They will open with an unproven pitching staff, a team that will manufacture runs as opposed to playing long ball and a team whose best attribute might be its togetherness.

Just like last year.

"Talent-wise, I don't think there's much of a difference," said Stabile, 74-38 in two years. "This team, I like this team. We might have lost some of this and some of that, but whatever we lost, we gained in other areas. I think they remember how close they came. They left with that taste in their mouth."

It begins with the pitching, which Stabile will be watching closely. All-SSC second-teamer Pete Maroudis (7-4, 4.38 ERA) will start tonight's opener against No. 4-ranked Florida Southern, but Stabile says any of his top three starters could turn into the No. 1.

Bryan Grassing, the strong-armed starting catcher last year, is being converted to a pitcher, and Joe Ricciardi is a transfer from South Florida, where he pitched in only three games. Senior David Macca is 11-5 in the past two seasons.

Stabile also is high on freshmen Mike Chambliss (Sickles), Toby Keys (Plant) and Eric Paone (Barnstable, Mass.).

"We've got some unproven freshmen we're going to throw to the wolves," Stabile said. "They'll need to step up. But we've got some young guys that look pretty good."

Catching them will be freshman Josh Grable, who helped Sickles to the Class 5A state final four last year and is another player Stabile is high on.

Among the returnees on the infield are first baseman Trevor Hall (.264) and second baseman Cayetano Landeros. Hall will probably share time with Central Florida transfer and former Land O'Lakes star Erik Shafer, who has shown exceptional power in practice, and Landeros is a great defensive player whose bat was disappointing last year (.240).

Third baseman Matt Krot is a Florida Community College (Jacksonville) transfer who played for Stabile in high school, but he will play shortstop for the first month because of an injury to returning starter Josh Neitz (.233). Neitz, a sophomore but one of the team leaders, broke the pinky on his throwing hand Friday and will be out 4-6 weeks.

Stepping in at third will be either freshman Ryan Swan (Merritt Island) or junior utility infielder Greg Fusco.

The key to the Lion offense, however, is leadoff hitter and centerfielder Jason Barker. A senior, Barker was an all-SSC pick last year after hitting .360 with seven home runs, 33 RBI and 27 steals. Stabile said he "plays like Lenny Dykstra" and should have another standout year.

He will be flanked by leftfielder Robbie Sparks, who hit .400 at Florida College last year, and rightfielder Ryan Picard, who came into his own last year (.366, 21 RBI).

With all the pieces in the right place, Stabile just has to hope they play better defense than the 1999 squad, which ranked near the bottom of the conference.

"Thus far, it looks pretty good," he said. "If we can play defense like we did at the end of last year, we have chance to be a good ballclub."