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Ex-Pirate Buccheri will fill in for ill Dunnellon coach

The new coach at Dunnellon has a name familiar to those in Citrus County.

Joe Buccheri.

The 54-year-old Buccheri has been hired on an interim basis to replace Mike Payne, who is recovering at his home in Williston from eastern equine encephalitis.

Buccheri was Crystal River's coach from 1987-96, during which his teams won five district titles.

"He knows how Mike wanted his program to run, and he was familiar with it," acting Dunnellon athletic director Penny Lofton said. "We felt he was going to be able to hit the ground running and keep the team as competitive as it was."

Buccheri and Payne have known each other for years.

They met when Buccheri was a coach with the St. Louis Cardinals and Payne was a bat boy for the Atlanta Braves. Payne later played in the Braves organization, and relocated to Williston after injuries cut his career short.

"Mike and I are friends, and I would like to keep the focus on the Dunnellon program and on him," Buccheri said. "When Mike is able to come back totally and lead his own program again, I'd be willing to help him in any way he wants me to. It's his program, and that's what I'm going to emphasize this year."

Buccheri's teams at Crystal River were among the area's best. Nineteen of his former players went on to earn college scholarships.

Colorado Rockies pitcher Mike Hampton played for Buccheri and was a high school all-american. Joe Buccheri Jr., Brian Fitzgerald, David Jones, Howie Marx and Jason Russ _ ex-players under Buccheri _ earned all-american honors in college.

"It was an easy decision because I'm helping out friends," Buccheri said. "But it was difficult logistically because I work at (Withlacoochee Technical Institute) and it's going to take about 45 minutes to get to practice every day. There are going to be sacrifices with the coaching staff and with players and parents. We've already had booster meetings, and everybody is on the same page."

Payne, 39, was admitted to North Florida Regional Medical Center in Gainesville on Aug. 10. He spent several weeks in intensive care and was later moved to a Jacksonville rehabilitation facility. The Ocala Star-Banner reported this week that Payne communicates by blinking his eyes but has not shown much physical movement.

Dunnellon went 18-10 last season.