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For Central, familiarity breeds intent

Central pitcher T.R. Ross estimates that, at some point in the course of his life, he has played on the same team as all but one or two players on the Nature Coast roster. Teammate Brian Nicolini says likewise, particularly when Little League, Dixie League and All-Star teams are considered.

Combine that familiarity with the two losses Central suffered at the hands of the second-year Sharks last season, and one suddenly finds a fair amount of subtext for tonight's game between the teams.

"It's all about respect," said Ross, a senior who starts tonight for the Bears. "You have to earn respect by beating the teams that don't respect you."

Yes, the month is only March. And yes, Central and Nature Coast are in different districts.

But don't expect the players to dwell on the fact that there are very few tangible benefits or consequences on the line in the teams' season series.

Particularly at Central.

Last year, the Bears finished behind everyone in the county standings, including Nature Coast, in its second year of its existence.

Though coach Dan O'Rourke takes a very Bode Miller-esque approach to the season - "It's really not about wins and losses for me, it's about how we play the game," he said - he acknowledges that his players are looking forward to the intra-county rivalry.

"For them, it's exciting," O'Rourke said, "but our motivation is to play well no matter who we are playing."

"Well," of course, is a word that can only be defined by subjectives. But a look at Central's past two games provides a pretty good visual.

Against Land O'Lakes last Tuesday, the Bears struck out 17 times in 23 at bats. They tallied one hit, put two runners on base, and did not move a man past second.

Two days later, in a dramatic 7-6 win over Lecanto, the Bears had 13 hits, slugged three home runs, and notched a come-from-behind victory on the road.

"It was a great win," said sophomore second baseman Brian Nicolini, who drove in the winning run on a groundout in the sixth inning.

Nicolini's older brother, Jason, started on the mound and hit a home run to help the Bears, who started the season 1-2 in the Tom Varn tournament.

"I think our overall approach and willingness to be faithful to what we want to do was better," O'Rourke said. "We had a better mental approach. They were more prepared when they got into the (batter's) box."

The Bears hope that approach will carry over into tonight's game. Ross was solid for five innings in his first outing before giving up seven runs in the sixth. And the Sharks are coming off a game in which they blew a six-run league.

But for Central, it all comes down to one word.