TAMPA — Kennie Taylor is a 155-pound sophomore, the smallest and youngest regular on what is generally regarded as the nation’s best high school baseball team.
Though diminutive relative to his teammates, Taylor’s exceptional speed and precocious talent earned him a spot at the top of Jesuit’s lineup earlier in the season.
If the Tigers’ virtual all-star collection of hitters has a weak link, Taylor is it — he ranks eighth on the team in batting average.
Yet he’s hitting .400.
“I consider myself as someone to get on base and make people a little nervous,” Taylor said. “And then my teammates will drive me in.”
That has been a near certainty this spring, as Jesuit has won all 16 of its games by a combined score of 200-14. Only four opponents have managed to stay within at least 10 runs of the Tigers.
Jesuit has dominated its competition unlike all but a few teams in county history, earning a No. 1 ranking nationally by MaxPreps.com and PerfectGame.com and a No. 3 ranking by USA Today.
With seven seniors bound for Division I programs, a power-hitting junior who is the younger brother of a 2012 first-round MLB draft pick and a coach — and alum — who nurses painful memories of falling short in recent postseasons, the Tigers seem the prohibitive favorite for the Class 5A championship.
But are they really?
Jesuit has come up short in three straight state tournament appearances, failing to make the title game last spring after losing 3-0 in eight innings to eventual champion Plantation American Heritage in the semifinals.
Their repeated failure to bring home the school’s first state championship since 2000, when coach Richie Warren helped pitch the Tigers to the title, remains the only mark on an otherwise spotless resume.
“There’s no more pressure that you can really put on it,” said John Kilichowski, a 6-foot-5 senior lefty who is headed to Vanderbilt in the fall. “We want it as bad as you can want it. But we wanted it in the same way in previous years.”
Jesuit has long been a program with a reputation for nurturing elite local talent, even sending six players to college last year (two to USF) and another into the major leagues (Lance McCullers, who was drafted 41st overall by the Houston Astros).
However, their hardware haul hasn’t been nearly that impressive: the Tigers have won only two district championships in the past six years despite compiling a record of 154-29 over that span.
Warren, who graduated from Jesuit in 2000 and started his coaching career while at the University of Florida at the age of 19, thinks this year’s team could be the one to finally bring home a title.
“There’s no doubt that playing here comes with a lot of pressure,” Warren said. “But this is probably the deepest team that Jesuit has ever fielded.”
It would be difficult to disagree.
The Tigers have five of the top 10 hitters in Hillsborough by batting average, the county’s top six RBI leaders and at least seven pitchers who can throw as hard as 90 mph, including Kilichowski and senior Spencer Trayner.
“We’re playing like we’re the No. 1 team,” said Trayner, who leads the county with a .548 batting average and has a 5-0 record and a 1.33 ERA as the Tigers’ top right-hander. “We take every game serious and we’ve been inspired to kick a little (butt).”
East Lake, the top-ranked team in Pinellas County, found out for itself in a 12-2 six-inning loss March 7.
“They’re strong in all phases, which is tough to do in high school,” East Lake coach Dan Genna said. “I would put them in the top three of teams I’ve seen in 15 years of coaching high school.”
Jesuit hopes to test itself a little more with its Easter tournament next week, which will feature nationally ranked Regis Jesuit from Colorado and teams from Miami, New York and Tennessee.
The hope, Warren said, is to create their own tournament atmosphere so the Tigers will be properly tested for tournaments to come. Specifically, the one in Fort Myers in mid May — the Class 5A state tournament.
“We don’t know much about the teams who will be coming here, just like in the playoffs,” Warren said, “and it’ll be a playoff atmosphere. It’s a good thing for us to go through.”
Indeed. And the stakes have been raised at a school where the basketball team recently went on a dominant run through the regular season — all but one of its 31 wins were by double digits — and won its first state championship in 29 years.
“We’re trying to mirror our basketball team,” Trayner said. “We’re going to match them.”
Jesuit Easter Tournament
Tuesday: Knoxville Catholic (Tenn.) vs. All Hallows (N.Y.), 10; Belen Jesuit vs. Regis Jesuit (Colo.), 1; Carrollwood Day vs. Regis (N.Y.), 4; Jesuit vs. St. Francis (N.Y.), 7
Wednesday: Quarterfinals, 10, 1, 4, 7
Thursday: Loser’s bracket games, 10 and 1; semifinals, 4 and 7
Friday: Consolation games, 10, 1 and 4; final, 7