JAI-ALAI

Season starts today in Ocala


Published: Thursday, April 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2004 at 11:25 p.m.
ORANGE LAKE - One after another, the stars of the show checked in for duty on Tuesday afternoon.
The 31st opening night in the history of Ocala Jai-Alai comes tonight, and a roster of players both familiar and foreign to the territory were checking the lay of the land.
A healthy chunk of the Orlando roster made the trip back and remnants of the recently closed fronton in Newport, R.I., have been signed for duty in Ocala.
"The Mexican connection," players manager Rafael Ferragut yelled playfully toward Jaime and Elizalde as they entered the locker room with 20-year-old Ikeda II in tow.
It had been only two days since Ferragut and his players watched the final point of the Orlando season crash into the screen. Upbeat, though, was the tone as those players regrouped at Ocala Jai-Alai, a new season awaiting, a new set of championships to be won.
"The core group that we have here are the crafty veterans, who have been playing in Orlando, and the younger kids, who are trying to make a name for themselves," Ocala Jai-Alai general manager Dale Popp said. "What we're likely to see is that the young guys are talented, but are not yet in their prime."
The 2004 season will run from tonight through June 26 with eight performances a week scheduled. Matinees will be held each Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m. (doors open at 11:30 a.m.). Evening performances are scheduled Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
"Probably Kompa is going to be one of the top players up front," Ferragut said. "He's a new guy here, but he has played for nine years in Orlando, and he is very good. He may surprise you. He's not overpowering, but is an excellent catcher and throws good caroms."
Kompa (Jose Companon) is a 30-year-old former Basque and European champion, and finished fifth in overall wins during the past Orlando Jai-Alai season.
Kompa is joined in the frontcourt by Alejandro, Ikeda II, Jaime, Robles, Erik, Laurent, Rocha, John, Todd and Osa. Backcourters include Muguerza, Hoey, Fernandez, Azpiri, Goitiz, Barri, Beltran, Elizalde, Sebio, Don, Victor and Gino, the roster's hardest thrower.
Backcourters Hoey and Lusebio return to Ocala after absences spanning several years. Warren Hoey stayed in the sport, Lusebio (Lewis Williams) did not. Following an almost seven-year absence, however, Lusebio dropped the "Lu," became "Sebio," and found his way onto the Orlando roster last fall.
"I did very well in the real estate market, and I can always have that, but jai alai came calling and I just wanted to go and see if I could re-live the dream," Sebio said. "I feel like I'm back better, stronger, faster ... just rebuilt. I feel like I'm back home again."
Popp has stayed home. He has continued his involvement in the sport from the heyday of the 1980s as a player, through the doldrums that began with a 1987 players strike and continued with rival forms of gaming that have shredded the discretionary dollar once reserved for places like Ocala Jai-Alai.
He's still addicted to the rush only the live game can offer.
"You really can't grasp how entertaining this sport is until you've come out and seen it. Jai alai is something special, and it's disappointing that, through everything that's happened, it's lost some of its popularity," said Popp. "I've scrubbed toilets and washed dishes in this building. There is no job too small. That's because I love this sport, and I want to see it succeed.
"It seems like the younger the (patron), the more fascinating they find it. And we have fans that come out year after year, and they just love it."

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