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Tritons hope their bubble doesn't burst

It has become another season on the bubble for the Eckerd College men's basketball team.

After finishing 22-6 overall and third in the Sunshine State Conference with a 10-4 record, the Tritons hope to be among five at-large squads selected today for the NCAA Division II South Regional Tournament.

The champions of three regional league tourneys _ the Sunshine State, Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and the Gulf South Conference _ receive automatic bids. The five remaining teams are selected as at-large squads, judged mainly by final season rankings.

Eckerd is fourth in the South Region poll.

Rollins College, the SSC's regular-season champ, almost is assured a spot after going 25-5. Florida Southern is the conference's automatic qualifier after winning the league tournament.

Getting in the regional tourney will be slightly easier this season. The field has increased from six to eight teams.

Eckerd players and coaches will gather this afternoon to find out if they have been selected. The Tritons congregated in the tiny campus athletic office last year, only to be disappointed when they did not receive an NCAA berth.

There is more confidence at Eckerd this time.

"It won't be a fall over dead kind of surprise (if the Tritons are not picked)," Eckerd coach Tom Ryan said. "But it would be a little surprising. I don't think we're on as much of the bubble as we were last year."

The Tritons have spent the past week practicing as if they are going to make an appearance.

For the fourth straight year, they finished in the top four of the conference. This season, Eckerd defeated Rollins and advanced to the second round of the Sunshine State tourney before losing to Florida Southern.

"I would say the mood around here right now is everyone is pretty excited," Ryan said. "We've been saying nothing but positive things.

"We've had another good season," he said, "and we've put ourselves in a position where we deserve a bid."

WOMEN TRITONS HONORED: Eckerd senior Andrea Patterson was selected for the All-Sunshine State Conference first team.

Stefanie Mihalpoulos and Brett Stone made the All-Freshmen squad.

Patterson led the Tritons with 17.1 points and seven rebounds per game.

Mihalpoulos averaged 12.7 points. Stone produced 8.8 points and 5.6 rebounds a game.

SPC BASKETBALL: The defense of the state championship is over for St. Petersburg College.

The Titans lost 71-67 to Okaloosa Walton CC on Thursday night in the opening round of the junior college state tournament at Chipola JC in Marianna. St. Petersburg, the Suncoast Conference runner-up, finished the season 21-10.

The SPC women's team also lost in the first round, but it wasn't nearly as close.

The Titans were eliminated by defending state champion Gulf Coast CC 107-53. St. Petersburg finished 15-16, third in the Southern Conference and made its first state tourney appearance in three years.

BASEBALL IN FULL SWING: St. Petersburg College started the most important part of its season this weekend when it began Suncoast Conference games.

Opening Friday against Hillsborough CC, the Titans will play 30 straight league games to end the season.

SPC has won the past two regular-season championships and finished second behind Manatee CC the three previous years.

Before Friday, the Titans were 13-4. They are led by the solid pitching of T.J. Large, Mike Simard, Jason Costello and Bobby DeMichael. Those four will receive a lot of work during the conference schedule.

"I wouldn't say any of them is the clear cut No. 1 pitcher," St. Petersburg coach Dave Pano said. "They are all about equal."

Pano said his team is performing well offensively and that it will take good hitting and pitching to compete in a tough league.

"I really think it's a wide open conference race," he said. "It's a lot more wide open than it has been. We're going to have to play very well."

Meanwhile, Eckerd is playing several non-conference teams before its league schedule begins March 21.

As of Friday, the Tritons were 11-11 but winners in eight of their past 10. That doesn't include an 11-0 exhibition loss to the Devil Rays on Feb. 28, perhaps the most memorable game of the season.

"That was a chance of a lifetime for our kids," Eckerd coach Bill Mathews said. "We were treated like big-leaguers."

Mathews has been getting good offensive production. Six players are hitting over .300.

On the mound, two freshmen have impressed enough to work their way into the starting rotation. Sam Reece (2-1, 2.60 ERA) and Mike Meagher (2-0, 3.00) have been a pleasant surprise.

Junior Eric Canestrari (3-1, 3.31) also has pitched well.

SSC POSTSEASON HONORS: Rollins' Matt Williams and Tom Klusman were named basketball player and coach of the year, respectively.

The University of Tampa's Jessie McDowell was women's player of the year, and Tampa's Tom Jessee was the coach of the year.

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