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Offense in neutral at Citrus

Early this season Citrus (0-3) has struggled at the plate, getting only 12 hits total in games against Crystal River, Leesburg and North Marion.

"Right now we need a win to get some confidence back," Hurricanes coach Jon Bolin said. "It's easy to say we are a slow starter, but until you put up a win you haven't done anything."

Bolin said the effort is there, just not the execution.

"We're not swinging at good pitches and aren't very disciplined at bat, but once we correct all of that we'll be fine," Bolin said.

Citrus lost 5-0 to Crystal River, then led 4-1 against Leesburg in the seventh inning before giving it up en route to a 5-4, 10-innning loss.

The biggest bright mark for Citrus has been the pitching of senior Derek Desomma, who started twice, and junior Joey Budnick, who pitched against Leesburg. Budnick didn't locate pitches as well as in the past, but Bolin said the lack of hitting also has killed any momentum on the mound.

"Derek is throwing the ball harder, spotting pitches well," Bolin said. "Unfortunately, we haven't hit behind him."

Citrus faces two district rivals at home this week; Belleview at 6:30 tonight and West Port at 6:30 p.m. Friday.

BAT GAME: Lecanto coach Jim Manos started the annual bat game between Crystal River and the Panthers. A larger-than-life bat has been exchanged since he helped create the event in 1992, during his first stint as coach.

"Many people might not realize it," Manos said, "but I started it. I did it as a way of creating friendship."

Manos said former assistant Jim Tobin, who now works with Citrus' program, and former Crystal River coach, Joe Buccheri, now an assistant for the Pirates, got together to start the tradition.

The name was changed to the Joe Rigney Jr. Bat Game after Manos stopped coaching at Lecanto. The games was renamed after a Lecanto student who died in a car accident, Manos said.

"I'm ecstatic that it's been going on for so many years," Manos said. "Some people take it for bragging rights, but it should be something fun."

The game takes place 6:30 p.m. Friday at Crystal River.

OUCH: When Steve Ekeli sees a fungo bat - the long thin mallet used for spraying ground balls, line drives and popups in practice - he can't help himself.

And so, about 15 months after serious back surgery, Ekeli is back in the batters box for Seven Rivers Christian, hitting to players. He's also pitching batting practice, though he doesn't throw hard and can't toss more than 30 pitches.

"They're always screaming, "get the hook,' " said Ekeli, who coached last year but could hardly participate in drills. "I can't push off. I can't bend my back."

His health is okay now, but he said he always feels the effects of practice after he drives home to Inverness.

"When I get out of the car, I know the reason they invented ice," he said.

YOUTH MOVEMENT: Crystal River coach Rob Cummins raves about the progression of his three sophomores - Herbie Sickler, Kyle Metz and C.J. Trenary - but Ekeli can do even better.

The Seven Rivers coach starts a seventh grader at second base. Andrew Gage, a slick-fielding middle schooler, earned the starting job though he is four grades younger than his double-play partner, junior Justin Richardson.

Gage got his first varsity hit in his first game.

"He's just one of the guys," Ekeli said. "They don't look at him as a seventh grader. He gets high fives just like everybody else does."

TOUGH COMPETITION: The Pirates have lost two in a row, but Cummins said he isn't worried.

Both the losses - to Land O'Lakes and Gainesville P.K. Younge - came against strong teams, Cummins said. And neither squad had much trouble with the Pirates pitching staff.

"They just hit the ball like it was nobodys business," Cummins said. "They earned everything they got. It's good to play teams like that."

Crystal River (2-2) returns to district play tonight, traveling to West Port.

POWER PROWLERS: Lecanto pitcher/first baseman Josh Hoggard is one of only two two seniors on the squad, but he's proving his leadership behind the plate. Against Central, Hoggard hit 3-for-3, and went 2-for-3 in the 4-1 loss to South Sumter.

Lecanto started the season with a 15-9 loss to Belleview, then went to South Sumter, before winning 5-1 against Dunnellon. The Panthers then lost 7-6 to Central.

Manos said sophomore shortstop Carl Scarano is also helping a great deal, by "making extraordinary plays look ordinary."

Scarano, pitched five innings against South Sumter with his trademark "heavy" fastball. "Velocity means nothing to him," Manos said. "To him it's like throwing a shot put."

MAKING THE MOST OF A MOMENT: Lecanto's extremely young squad means less practice, more learning on the fly.

"It's about cashing in on what little opportunities we get," Manos said. "It's about minimizing our mental mistakes. Our physical errors are errors of commission, but our errors of omission - that comes from inexperience."

Manos wants his players to be more aware of who is on base and what inning it is, so that they instinctively react more quickly.

- DAWN REISS and BRIAN SUMERS,

Times staff writers

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