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SENIORS WITH STATURE

Durant turns to formidable batterymates and hitters Sara DeMuth and Kristen Jones.

With his players huddled around him on the third-base line, Durant coach Matt Carter sat on a bucket and diagrammed defensive strategy in the clay with a bat handle.

Later, while hitting fungo to his infielders, he asked a reporter not to put any of the Cougars' defensive shifts "on the dot-com."

In an age of dry-erase boards and Web jargon, Carter seemed to possess neither on this day. But what he does have, more than the most state-of-the-art laptop, is battery power.

Scan the softball landscape from Port Tampa to Plant City, and you're not likely to find a more experienced pitcher-catcher tandem than Cougars seniors Sara DeMuth and Kristen Jones, who hit .514 and .507, respectively, for the 23-3 Cougars last season.

DeMuth, who can throw six pitches, won 15 games, losing one and posting a 0.49 ERA.

"It makes it nice whenever you play together during the summer on the travel-ball team and come together in the same scenario during high school," Carter said.

"You don't have to jell with somebody; you already know their characteristics. It makes everything easier, makes it flow a little bit easier."

Teammates since fourth grade, DeMuth and Jones' backgrounds are strikingly common.

DeMuth lives eight minutes from Jones, whom she considers her best friend. DeMuth was born Oct. 2, 1989, only 22 days after Jones. Both played volleyball and basketball earlier in their high school careers before focusing exclusively on softball.

Both compete in the summer for the Plant City-based Florida Pride. And both will play next season at Division II Augusta (Ga.) State, where they plan to room together - if Jones can tolerate DeMuth's tidiness.

"I think she's very clean," Jones says, turning to DeMuth. "You're very clean. Any time I go to your house ... the bed's always made, there's like, nothing on the floor."

DeMuth retorts with a crack about the meticulous, multistep routine Jones goes through during each plate appearance.

Before every pitch, Jones gets the sign from Carter, fixes her shin guard, straightens the tongue of her shoes, tugs at her shorts and shirt, jerks her neck to get the hair out of her face, reads the inscription on her bat (don't think, just hit), then touches the plate with it.

"Even in practice she does it," DeMuth says. "It's really long."

The offseason has been even longer, primarily because of the way the '07 season ended. In the Class 5A region quarterfinals, Countryside scored eight runs in the eighth inning to defeat the Cougars for the second consecutive year in the playoffs.

Durant lost three key infielders and an outfielder from that squad, but four of its top six hitters return. So does a pitcher-catcher tandem with a lengthy history - and memory.

"Even thinking about it now," DeMuth said, "still makes me very angry."

Times' Fab Five

1. Gaither: Led by senior pitcher Morgan Grove, the 2007 Times Player of the Year, returns seven starters from region finalists.

2. Chamberlain: Sophomore Alex Hartshorn should replace 20-game winner Brittany Cavalli; offense led by Division I recruits Mary Kate Smith (Stanford), Samantha Holley (Florida) and Stephanie Medina (USF).

3. Newsome: Made a Cinderella run to the state semifinals last season and could be back with senior Ashley Stubbs, who had a sub-2.00 ERA and .350 batting average last season.

4. Durant: With Sara Demuth (0.49 ERA) and Florida-bound Kelsey Horton (.534 average), Cougars could be sleeper state semifinal pick.

5. Riverview: Boast all-county pitcher Ashley McClain (1.55 ERA, .489 average) and Brittany Yates (30 RBIs) but are in a tough district.

Other players to watch

Khrystyne Ely, Sickles, Sr., Util.: One of the county's most versatile players (.561 average, 23 RBIs, seven homers, 1.60 ERA).

Katie Forbes, Gaither, Sr., IF:First-team all-county pick hit .434 with 28 RBIs last spring.

Dianne Gonzalez, Riverview, Sr., 1B: Defensive standout will play for Saint Leo.

Laura Lovell, Newsome, Jr., Util.: Returning all-county pick (second team) can play second base or in the outfield.

Marissa Menendez, Chamberlain, Jr., 2B: Solid all-around player with the glove and the bat; a USF commitment.

Katelyn Molkenthin, Bloomingdale, Sr., OF: Shining star on a struggling team last season, hit .522 with 32 RBIs.

Jamie O'Hara, Newsome, Sr., OF: After strong 2007 season, was second-team all-county pick.

Hannah Ojeda, Plant, Sr., 2B: Top-flight infielder will be a key to Panthers' success.

Becky Vyzas, Holy Names, Sr., C: Slugger (.602 average, five homers) is stellar behind the plate and has committed to Tampa.

Ericka Wetherington, Durant, Jr., P/1B: Up-and-coming player should provide Cougars with power.

FAST FACTS

For the fans

Admission: Most regular-season games are free.

Regular season: Practice began Jan. 7, and the first games allowed are today. A team may not play more than 25 games, including tournaments. The regular season ends April 12.

Playoffs: District tournaments are April 14-18. The 16 winners and 16 runnersup from each classification advance to the region tournaments, which begin April 22. The final four teams from the six classifications advance to the state tournament May 5-10 at Plant City Stadium.

County state titles

Cambridge: Three (1997, 1998, 2005)

Riverview: Two (2000, 2002)

Bloomingdale: One (1993)

Chamberlain: One (2003)

Gaither: One(1996)

Sickles: One (2001)

Tampa Catholic: One (1997)

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