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Countryside, Palm Harbor rivalry grows

As any coach will tell you, championships are not won in March.

Thursday, however, it will be tough to think a championship game is not taking place at Palm Harbor University when the county's biggest and best rivalry is renewed.

Countryside is visiting for a 4 p.m. start, and for a regular-season game, plenty will be on the line.

The winner of the showdown between the top two teams in the Times Tampa Bay Top 10 (15-0 Countryside is No. 1, 12-1 PHU is No. 2) will all but clinch the Pinellas County Athletic Conference North Division title. The winner also will claim a bit of a mental advantage going into May's Class 5A regionals, where Countryside and PHU could very well meet again.

Plus there are a year's worth of bragging rights.

Katie Dobson knows. The Hurricane enjoyed a fabulous 1999 season, leading the county in earned-run average and leading PHU to the 4A state championship game, but the season had one lingering, annoying hole. She took the loss to Countryside 5-0 on March 29.

"It's a team that we definitely want to beat, and we know we need to beat them," Dobson said. "It's going to be as hard as it was last year."

Hard in no small part because opposing Dobson again will be Countryside's ace, Crystal Crews. Crews has surprised no one this year, breaking out to an 8-0 start with 61 strikeouts in 39 innings.

Crews, Dobson and several Hurricanes and Cougars are teammates during club season, so the rivalry game takes on a high degree of familiarity.

"It makes it more challenging for me," Crews said of the familiarity factor. "(Palm Harbor) knows what to look for."

The challenge is not lost on the coaches either, and they claim the rivalry game is coming at a good time in the season. Neither Countryside or PHU has been pushed to the limit lately by opponents, so the 1-0 or 2-1 outcome that is likely Thursday is welcomed.

"It's nice to play a game that's likely to be close," Countryside coach Scott Kitchen said.

It's not an arrogant statement, just to the point. Countryside's lineup has been 10-running teams regularly, with seven players batting .433 or higher.

"They're both good pitching clubs and they play solid defense," said Seminole coach Mark DeRuzzo, who has seen both up close _ and lost. "I think Countryside probably swings the bats the best. They're a tough out."

East Lake also lost to both, and coach Bob Hudson shakes his head at the thought of the matchup _ but also shares some of the excitement that surrounds it.

"It's tough you've got two really premier pitchers and two well-coached ball teams," Hudson said. "What day is it? I might go."