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Time to live up to hype

Dunedin has a win over nationally ranked Sarasota. Clearwater Central Catholic has shut out defending state champion Tampa Catholic and beaten Class 3A No. 2 Jacksonville Bolles. Northside Christian has beaten Has beaten?

Truth is, Northside Christian may be ranked No. 9 in the country by Baseball America, but of the three best teams in the county, the Mustangs stand out for their lack of quality victims.

That will change beginning Monday, when the Mustangs, Marauders and host Falcons try to bump into each other at the 33rd annual Dunedin Easter Tournament.

The three local teams are the class of the field, which also includes Countryside, Clearwater, Dixie Hollins, Palm Harbor and Pinellas Park, as well as teams from Pasco and Hernando counties and highly-regarded and formerly ranked Tallahassee Leon.

But the real allure of the tournament is the potential for a Dunedin-Northside Christian matchup, which would pit Baseball America's Nos. 2 and 9 teams against each other. Both are ranked No. 1 in the state, in Class 4A and Class A, respectively.

Dunedin coach Tom Hilbert and Mustangs coach Darrell Don concede such a meeting would be a winner, but stress that looking forward to the game is a good way of getting beaten.

"There's usually some upsets in this tournament, so you better be ready for everyone," said Hilbert, whose team was runner-up last year to Venice.

Don agreed, saying his staff is focusing on Monday's opponent, Pinellas Park. But he knows his players would relish a chance at the Falcons.

"I'd be lying if I said the kids weren't excited (about the possibility)," Don said. "I think the kids would love to have that. They'd be crazy not to. It'd have the hype of Dunedin-Seminole last year, with thousands of people and tons of scouts. It would be a big showcase, and it's hard to avoid wanting to play that."

For Northside, it would be a chance to prove its lofty rankings. Dropped from 2A to A before the season, the Mustangs (15-0) play in a much weaker district with nine other teams.

Other than a 6-1 win over No. 4 Bradenton Saint Stephen's, the season has been rife with non-competitive outings _ 12 of the Mustangs' 15 victories have not gone seven innings due to the 10-run rule.

"As a coach, you're just trying to improve your team (for the playoffs), but for the boys, I'm sure they listen to other people and they've gotten their fair share of criticism, or maybe not criticism but doubters," Don said.

"This is their chance, really. I think they feel this is a way for them to regain a little respect."

Don knows, however, that Pinellas Park will be looking for the respect a win over the Mustangs can bring. He says his team has to be ready for every game before daydreaming about the Falcons.

Dunedin (16-0) will open against Northeast and then may have to get by CCC, another team hoping to find out just how good it is. The Marauders, 13-0 and No. 3 in Class 2A, have held every opponent this year to three runs or less, and boast one of the county's deepest pitching staffs.

CCC has the potential to make a statewide impact with potential games against Land O'Lakes, Dunedin in the semifinals and Northside Christian in the final.

"There's three teams that are undefeated coming into the tournament," Don said, "and just one will leave that way."