TAMPA — Could expectations be any higher at Jesuit?
Long the class of Hillsborough County and a perennial fixture in the national polls, the Tigers, state finalists the past two seasons, have managed to up the ante this year.
ESPNRise ranked Jesuit No. 3 in its preseason poll. Collegiate Baseball has the Tigers at No. 2. And Perfect Game has designated them as the No. 1 prep team in the nation.
“Everyone knows how good our team was last year, and this year we’re nothing less, if not better,” said senior catcher/third baseman Nolan Schultz, who hit .444 with 40 RBIs as a Times’ all-county selection last season. “We take it as it is, we realize we’re going to get everyone’s best, and we like that.”
With seven seniors signed to play Division I baseball (including pitcher/shortstop Lance McCullers, ranked fourth on MLB.com’s list of prospects for the June MLB first-year players draft) and four juniors already committed to top collegiate programs, the Tigers have an abundance of experience and depth. Coach Richie Warren, who graduated from Jesuit in 2000 and was a member of the Tigers’ last state title team, said this could be the deepest the program has been in its long and storied 106-year history.
“That ’97 team was a pretty good team, obviously national champs, but in terms of competitiveness, I’m telling you, we have the most competitive practices because anyone on our roster could start, and we would not miss a beat,” Warren said. “We have guys that are fourth and fifth outfielders that would probably be starting a lot of different places around the state of Florida.”
In addition to Schultz, who has signed with the University of Rochester (N.Y.), and McCullers, currently a Florida commit who hit .422 last year and topped 100 mph with his fastball at last summer’s East Coast Showcase in Lakeland, the Tigers’ offense will rely heavily on seniors Max Beerman and Joey Altieri. Beerman, a Villanova commit, will bat cleanup, and USF commit Altieri is fully healthy for the first time in recent memory.
Such a senior-heavy squad (12 total) has allowed Warren to shorten practices and add an in-season workout program. And having such high expectations, along with a two-year-old ballpark that would be the envy of many college and minor-league teams, has attracted local celebrities such Tampa Bay Rays David Price and B.J. Upton.
There’s only one element missing, which the Tigers hope to add in May: that elusive state championship.
“We’re blessed to play in this kind of program but at the same time it comes with tremendous pressure and tremendous expectations, but we don’t mind it,” McCullers said. "We’re set on focusing on every game individually, but of course the state championship is always in the back of your mind. That’s what we want, and that’s what we expect of ourselves.”
1. Jesuit: With their wealth of talent, the Tigers should contend for a national title. Anything other than the program’s fourth state crown will be a disappointment.
2. Jefferson: Division I-bound pitchers Jimmy Herget (USF) and Corbin Olmstead (North Florida), who also led last year’s squad in RBIs, anchor senior-heavy team.
3. Plant: The region semifinalist returns shortstop Nick Ramos and pitcher Matt Sanders, and will get a boost from Jesuit transfer Pete Alonso, the county’s reigning RBI leader.
4. Alonso: Can’t count out last year’s state champion, which returns closer-turned-No. 1 starter senior Nathan Hahn and FSU commit Ryan Valdez.
5. Tampa Catholic: Crusaders return top hitter (sophomore Paulie Russo) and pitcher (senior Derek Martin) from last year’s region finalist.
6. Steinbrenner: Longtime coach John Crumbley will rely on Florida signee Gerald Bautista and pitcher Chris Williams to help lead the third-year program past the district semifinals, where the Warriors’ season has ended the past two years.
7. Durant: Key pieces (junior Tyler Danish and senior Trey Oest) remain from last year’s region finalist.
Just a bit outside: Bloomingdale, Brandon, Gaither, King, Riverview