With winter sports wrapping up this week, baseball is swinging into focus. Here are the North Suncoast’s five biggest questions after the season’s first few games, plus a look at some of 2013’s top early performers:
Five early questions
1. How will Land O’Lakes rebound from 2012? The Gators have dominated so far and have compiled Pasco County’s best resume. Land O’Lakes has only allowed one run in five games — and that came in a 2-1 victory over a strong Mitchell team. Senior Josh Nissen is off to an 11-of-16 start with 10 RBIs to lead four regulars who are batting at least .400. The Gators have good pitching, too — Zachary Whitaker and Jake Rawls have combined for 30 strikeouts and one earned run in 26 innings. But Land O’Lakes will be judged in the postseason, where they will try to rebound from last year’s district runnerup finish and first-round loss to Winter Haven.
2. Who’s tops in Hernando County? The Leopards have ruled the county with three consecutive trips to at least the elite eight or beyond. They’ll contend again this year, with two of the area’s top players — Brandon Lawson (USF signee) and Christian Arroyo (Florida signee). But Springstead shocked Hernando with an early 8-6 win. The Eagles can mash the ball behind Oral Roberts recruit Brandon Brosher (.700 average, three home runs). Nature Coast has improved, too, and is already more than halfway to topping last year’s four wins, and Scott Dwyer’s .444 average has helped Central to a 3-2 start.
3. Can Pasco get back to the playoffs? The Pirates’ 2012 season was marred by the departure of longtime coach Ricky Giles but saved by their 11th playoff appearance since 2001. Pasco graduated star Trey Dudley-Giles, but coach Pat Fortunato inherited plenty of talent. Lane Stancil, AJ Rainaldi and the Pirates can shrug off their 0-2 start to compete for another postseason appearance.
Will Ridgewood’s improvements continue? The Rams (5-2) crossed off one major achievement last season — their first district title since 2005. Now they’ll try to go farther with the program’s first playoff victory in eight years. Ridgewood’s lineup includes two strong pitchers — Joseph Hloska and Adam Arrowood have combined for 33 strikeouts already — and an offense that’s scored at least five runs in six of its seven games.
5. Which Wesley Chapel team has the best playoff shot? Wesley Chapel and Wiregrass Ranch both missed the postseason in 2012, but have high hopes for this spring. The Wildcats are 3-2 with their only blemishes coming in one-run losses to Tampa Catholic and Ridgewood. Wiregrass (5-1) has been impressive, too. Zach Drury has struck out 33 batters while allowing only one earned run in 16 innings. The Bulls face tough competition in Hillsborough County, but a postseason appearance is a realistic possibility.
Keep an eye on …
Cobi Johnson, Mitchell: The hard-throwing junior was a first-team all-North Suncoast pick last year with a .416 average. He orally committed to Florida State in the offseason, and he’ll face higher expectations this spring.
Vito Tambasco, Nature Coast: The standout sophomore is already putting up monster numbers. He’s batting .526 with seven RBIs to go with a 0.81 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 8.2 innings. Tambasco was one of the North Suncoast’s top freshmen a year ago.
Colton Nussel, Bishop McLaughlin: His .357 average leads a Hurricanes team that has stumbled so far, a year after making the playoffs.
Jordan Hambor, Zephyrhills: The senior outfielder is off to a blazing start: a .467 batting average with three doubles and four RBIs.
Marshall Stitt, Gulf: His 14-strikeout, two-hit shutout victory over Hudson has been the highlight of the Bucs’ season.
David Castillo, Sunlake: The junior has been one of the top players so far for the steady, 3-3 Seahawks. His .375 batting average leads the team, and he’s posted a 1.97 ERA in two starts.