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WHO'S THE SALADINO FAVORITE?

Records through Thursday's games

THE TOP 10

1. Durant (12-1): It's the year of the Cougar. Or so they hope. Durant has never won the Saladino Tournament but it comes strong this year with hot pitching (Ross Jackson threw a no-hitter this week) and live bats.

2. Plant (12-2): Plant is the popular choice most years. The Panthers are perennially strong on the mound and at the plate. Plus, it's hard to forget two years ago when Plant won the tournament by mercy rule on a Tony Cancio line drive home run to rightfield. Plant is in one of the toughest brackets in the tournament, but the Panthers also have one of the deepest pitching staffs.

3. Armwood (11-3): The Hawks should cruise through their bracket. Then comes the hard part _ the rest of the week when the good teams pop up. Armwood has not won this tournament since 1989 but could sneak in for title No. 2. Make no mistake, the Hawks have strong pitching with a team ERA of 0.89.

4. Robinson (9-5): Yeah, we know, Robinson couldn't possibly be good enough to win the county's most prestigious tournament. Well, the Knights can hit (seven players have averages above .300) and they can pitch (three pitchers have ERAs under 2.00). The Knights' deep pitching staff could put them over the top.

5. Sickles (7-5): The Gryphons showed up with a 1-9 record last year and won the tournament. This year, they're 7-5 but just lost to Tampa Bay Tech. Look for Sickles to have a good showing, but winning two titles in a row has only been done once.

6. King (9-6): Another team that always plays well here but hasn't won since 1992. If there is a dark horse, this is it. The Lions have the most wins in their bracket but still have to deal with Gaither and Chamberlain.

7. Gaither (7-7): Don't bet against Gaither and coach Frank Permuy. He seems to have a way of getting his teams ready for big games. The Cowboys also have a habit of starting seasons off slow before making big runs at the end and winding up deep in the regional playoffs. The key is whether or not Gaither has jelled.

8. Jefferson (7-5): Talk before the season indicated Jefferson wouldn't be anywhere near five losses right now. A couple of minor injuries and some down games took care of that. The Dragons know what it takes to win this many games in one week for the title (they did it in 1991).

8. Chamberlain (7-6): Chamberlain is in the Blue Division with Gaither, King and Wharton. The Chiefs are hoping that doesn't reflect their mood after the first three games. The second tiebreaker in this tournament is least runs scored. If Chamberlain makes it that far, lack of runs might be its downfall.

10. Hillsborough (6-8): How much does Elijah Dukes like the short fences at Jefferson where the Terriers play their first three games? We're guessing a lot. Dukes is thriving under new coach Pat Russo and that, along with some talented Terriers, could spell trouble for the Yellow Division.

BEST OF THE REST

11. Brandon (6-6): Five times the Eagles have run away with the Saladino title. Five! Plant is second with three. To take home No. 6, the Eagles will have to double their win total.

12. Riverview (6-8): The Sharks did beat Gaither 6-4 earlier this week, but do they have the depth to win it? Doubtful.

13. Bloomingdale (5-10): One of the best five-win teams around, but that's not a strong endorsement. Then again, remember what Sickles did last year.

14. Leto (5-6): Came back from a five-run deficit in the seventh inning to defeat Robinson 10-9 on Wednesday. But how much magic do the Falcons have?

15. East Bay (4-10): One of the county's pleasant surprises last season after qualifying for regional play. Would take a drastic turnaround to repeat that feat.

16. Tampa Bay Tech (4-8): Pitching depth a problem, and hitting and defense could also use some sprucing up.

17. Plant City (5-7): Raiders have a couple of good players, but they need a couple more.

18. Wharton (3-9): Wade Boggs, that's right, the future Hall of Famer, is an assistant coach for the Wildcats. Some might wish he could play for them in this season of struggle. "And now batting for Wharton, Wade Boggs."

19. Alonso (3-11): Landy Faedo has done what several other Ravens coaches couldn't: Win three games. Shoot, the football team scored 13 points all season.

20. Blake (1-8): Could Blake do what Sickles did last year? Now that would be the upset of the century.

TOURNAMENT INFORMATION

WHEN: Today-Saturday

DIVISIONS: Red _ Robinson, Alonso, Leto, Sickles; White _ Bloomingdale, Durant, East Bay, Riverview; Blue _ Chamberlain, Gaither, King, Wharton; Green _ Armwood, Brandon, Plant City, Tampa Bay Tech; Yellow _ Blake, Hillsborough, Jefferson, Plant.

TODAY'S SCHEDULE: At USF _ Durant vs. Bloomingdale, 1 p.m.; Riverview vs. East Bay, 4; Tampa Bay Tech vs. Armwood, 7. At Gaither _ King vs. Chamberlain, 1; Wharton vs. Gaither, 4. At Jefferson _ Blake vs. Hillsborough, 4; Plant vs. Jefferson, 7. At Sickles _ Robinson vs. Alonso, 4; Leto vs. Sickles, 7. At University of Tampa _ Plant City vs. Brandon.

_ SCOTT PURKS, MIKE READLING

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