At no point this past offseason was Pinellas Park at the center of the county baseball discussion.
This was a season that was supposed to belong to Dunedin and Seminole, the county's top teams who were primed to go deep into the playoffs and meet in the region finals for the second straight season.
The Patriots were an afterthought. They lost their three best hitters from last year's team that won a district title. But this year has been defined by one insurrection after another, particularly in districts and playoffs.
Dunedin and Seminole were both upset in the Class 5A, District 11 semifinals. Northeast, the top seed in 5A-12, was knocked out in the semifinals by Largo.
It started the season 7-14 and entered the 5A-12 tournament as the No. 3 seed. But the Patriots kept winning and winning.
Now Pinellas Park (13-14) is the last county public school standing and will host Bradenton Manatee (21-8) at 7 Friday in a Class 5A region final.
"We've just been able to get hot at the right time and keep it going," Patriots coach Bill Ruttencutter said.
The county has had no better story in 2011 than Pinellas Park, which is heading into tonight's game on a six-game win streak and playing in the region final for the first time.
"There was some rebuilding we had to do," Ruttencutter said. "We lost a lot of guys."
But the Patriots still had Donny Norris, a St. Petersburg College signee who has been the workhorse of the staff the past two seasons. Norris pitched in the biggest games to give Pinellas Park a chance this season.
"We struggled early because we have so many guys playing who are in their first or second year with the team," Norris said. "But right now everything seems to be clicking. We're playing well and just got hot when it counted."
If there was a turning point in the Patriots' season, it came against Clearwater Central Catholic in the first game of the Dunedin Invitational. Pinellas Park stayed with CCC in a marathon that was tied at 2 in 14 innings before it was suspended because it ran late. The Marauders won the game when it resumed, but the Patriots gained something more: confidence.
"The guys all felt that we not only played with them, but could have won," Ruttencutter said.
Since then, things have come together. In the district semifinals, Pinellas Park beat Boca Ciega, a team it had lost to twice in the regular season. The Patriots have gone on to beat Largo, Tarpon Springs and East Lake.
"We keep thinking we're having big upsets, but the guys do not see that way," Ruttencutter said. "And that's a good thing."
Admission is $6
Class 2A, Shorecrest (23-10) vs. Brooks-DeBartolo (13-14) at Freedom High: The Chargers are in the region final for the second straight year thanks to an offense that has come on at the right time with a combined 23 runs in the past two games. Shorecrest beat Brooks-DeBartolo 6-3 in the first round of the Steve Georgiadis tournament in March.