If Brandon proved anything last season, it was that it is not how you start the season, it's how you finish. After starting a just-above-average 6-4, an Eagles squad made up nearly entirely of sophomores and juniors ran an 18-game winning streak into the Class 5A state semifinals. Along the way, Brandon knocked down Hillsborough heavyweights Plant and Alonso en route to the Saladino Tournament title and prevailed in eight postseason games thanks to solid pitching, stellar defense and clutch hitting. Fast-forward to Friday night, when Brandon faced Lakeland in a preseason game — and the Dreadnaughts threw their top three arms at the Eagles.
"I think the hardest thing given that we were so young last year is getting rid of all expectations and basically trying to start over," Brandon coach Matt Stallbaumer said.
"If anything, everyone else on the outside has a more heightened awareness of us than ever before. Last year, the mind-set was, 'Go get it.' "
This year, everyone is out to get them.
"Nobody was really gunning for us last year. We were gunning for everybody," first baseman Roderick Shoulders said. "This year, a lot of teams are going to be looking to beat us. I just look at it like last year. We've got to think we're still the underdogs when we're really not to some people."
The Eagles (25-7 last season) lost just two starters, including leadoff hitter Eric Arce, who transferred to Lakeland. Three of their top four pitchers from last season — Cory Schools, Austin Browder and Chase Sparkman — are back. And the heart of the order — centerfielder James Ramsay, catcher Michael Smith and Shoulders — has an added year of experience.
Because of that and their trip to the semis, the opening stretch will be pivotal. And that starts this week with road games at Hillsborough and Bloomingdale.
"We figure we're going to see everyone's ace this year. We'll just have to work through it," Smith said. "Everyone thinks we're the best, so they're going to throw their best at us. We want to go hard all year, no up and down. It's going to be up the whole way.
"We're never going to fall off our mountain."
Players to watch
Gregg Cooke, P, Sickles: The 6-foot-7 righty and UCF recruit was 6-2 as a junior last season and tossed two no-hitters.
Kyle Copack, SS, Newsome: Senior led the Wolves in batting (.404), doubles (nine), hits (36) and RBIs (29) last year.
Ray Delphey, OF/P, Alonso: The senior USF signee went 5-2 and struck out 57 batters in 391/3 innings on the mound and drove in 20 runs at the plate.
Thomas Dormany, P, Alonso: Behind former Times Pitcher of the Year Alex Panteliodis and Ray Delphey, the lefty and USF recruit was relegated to the bullpen last year. Now is his time to shine.
Greg Dupell, 1B/3B, Jesuit: The senior, who has signed with Navy, hit .313 with five homers and 21 RBIs last season.
Josh Dunn, 3B/P, Sickles: The righty and Florida Gulf Coast recruit led a talented lineup with a .414 average and 29 hits.
Jimmy Falla, RF, Jesuit: One of the county's top returning run-producers, the senior USF recruit drove in 31 runs in 27 games while hitting .393 with five homers.
Mychal Givens, P/SS, Plant: With four key senior starters gone, the righty and area's top professional prospect will have to become a leader and No. 1 starter on a suddenly young Panthers team.
Joe Hudson, C/3B, Jesuit: Notre Dame signee is an outstanding pure hitter — leading the Tigers with a .397 average — and is a natural leader wherever he plays.
Jay Laurienzo, RF, Hillsborough: Florida Gulf Coast recruit led the Terriers with .441 average, seven doubles, three triples and 21 RBIs.
Tito Martinez, 2B/SS, Alonso: Table-setting middle infielder offers defensive leadership and led the Ravens with 26 runs scored while hitting .338.
Marlon Mitchell, C, Hillsborough: Senior is an N.C. State signee and one of the county's top pro catching prospects.
Tyler Neuhaus, C, Wharton: Sophomore hit .333 and made just five errors last season.
Zach Payne, P, Bloomingdale: Senior lefty struck out 56 in 381/3 innings while holding opponents to a .238 batting average.
Sean Prieto, P, Sickles: The 6-foot-2 junior transfer from Chamberlain could emerge as one of the county's top pitchers behind a better supporting cast. Long and lean, the lefty has a deceptive delivery and great changeup.
James Ramsay, CF, Brandon: Last year's Times Player of the Year is just a junior but has already committed to USF. He led the Eagles with a .467 average and 49 hits and added nine doubles, three homers and 30 RBIs.
Roderick Shoulders, 1B, Brandon: The left-handed junior led the county with 39 RBIs last season and was a solid defensively during the Eagles' postseason run. He also hit .414 with six homers.
Michael Smith, C, Brandon: Florida Gulf Coast recruit (.404 average, nine doubles, four homers, 32 RBIs) was the Eagles' best hitter in the clutch during the playoffs.
Chase Sparkman, P, Brandon: The lefty emerged from out of nowhere during last season's Saladino Tournament and ended the season 7-0 with four saves and a 2.78 ERA.
Chris Velez, 2B/SS, Sickles: Top-of-the-order spark plug hit .346 and is among the top 100 senior prospects, according to Baseball America.
Reggie Williams, CF, Brooks-DeBartolo: The 6-foot-4, 189-pounder hasn't played high school baseball since his freshman year but already has signed with national power Miami.
|Teams to watch|
|Bloomingdale: The Bulls return the heart of the team, including a pair of starters in Zach Payne and R.J. Brown who would be aces on most teams. If Bloomingdale can start strong early in a competitive district, who knows?|
|Brandon: The Eagles' run to the Class 5A state semifinals was one for the ages, and they return nearly everyone. But can Brandon remain as clutch with a bull's-eye on them?|
|Jesuit: The Tigers return seven starters from a team that won 20 games but didn't make regions. They need to rebuild their pitching, but junior lefty Daniel Gibson (53 strikeouts in 31 innings) will lead the way.|
|Sickles: Gregg Cooke and newcomer Sean Prieto give the Gryphons the top righty-lefty combo in the county. They could have the most overall talent of any county team, and their pitching depth should lead to a deep postseason run.|
|Alonso: The Ravens also had a disappointing finish to last season. But as usual, pitching will be their strength with Ray Delphey and Thomas Dormany. Catcher Adam Pendleton is a University of Tampa recruit.|
Games to watch
Tuesday: Brandon at Hillsborough (a rematch of last year's Saladino final)
Feb. 20: Brandon at Bloomingdale (early district tilt)
Feb. 24: Alonso at Sickles (county's top two teams might be from the same district)
March 10: Plant at Jesuit (district rivalry has become one to circle on the schedule)
April 4-10: Saladino Tournament (championship is at Brandon)
April 21: Jesuit at Tampa Catholic (the second game between the private school rivals)
April 27- May 1: District tournaments
May 5-16: Region tournaments
May 20-26: State tournaments, Tradition Field, Port St. Lucie