The smell of clay mixed with fresh cut grass is one of the most cherished scents of spring. Of course, the aroma may never have been formulated without the invention of baseball. This week, as major-league teams descend on the state for spring training, local high school teams whet our appetites as they begin their quests for postseason glory. On the North Suncoast, there's a lot of optimism and unknowns entering 2010.
Pasco has questions on the mound and at the plate. Pitcher Matt Gude needs Tommy John surgery and Brennan Allen is not ready to pitch after a late start. Pasco also must replace the big bats of Jake Schrader, Josh Johnson and Jorge Jamarillo, who combined for the top three batting averages, 100 runs and 106 RBIs. Look for Kevin Gude and Chris Dious to battle for the No. 1 spot in the pitching rotation while Pasco takes time to jell.
Plenty of unknowns
Few might truly know what to expect from Ridgewood, including veteran coach Larry Beets. The Rams have mostly sophomores and juniors and lost Jay Mattos, their top hitter and pitcher last season. The opportunity to blossom is there for many including freshman catcher Ryan Mettler and sophomore shortstop Robbie McCabe. Look for senior third baseman George Duncan to anchor the infield.
When opponents talk about Land O'Lakes, strong pitching is the main concern. The Gators have arguably the North Suncoast's most promising staff including Jason Garcia, who led the Gators with 72 strikeouts and an 8-3 record last season. Connor Coplon, who transferred back from Sunlake, went 6-1 for the Seahawks with 71 strikeouts and a 2.11 ERA. Austin Aubuchon led the Gators with five saves and a 1.52 ERA, and Brad Hencke should help fill spots left by graduates Zach May and Brad Renner.
Solid from top to bottom
Springstead won 16 games in 2009 and with a good nucleus coach Frank Vitale believes the Eagles have everything to lose. It begins with senior Patrick Dwyer and junior pitcher Brett Maggard. Dwyer was the Eagles' top player in '09 batting .425 with 37 hits, 25 RBIs, seven doubles, a triple and two home runs. Maggard is close to 100 percent after Tommy John surgery. Vitale said in his 28 years of being associated with high school baseball he never has had 11 pitchers on a team. Springstead also picked up key Nature Coast transfers in Jack Diven and Matt Adams.
Coach Chuck Yingling led Wesley Chapel to its first 12-win season and first district title, and he expects to build on that success. After losing graduate Christian Illing, the Wildcats have picked up three key transfers, including Cole Miraglia and Drew Mitchell from Zephyrhills. Miraglia will be the No. 1 pitcher and Mitchell the starting centerfielder. David Villarea, back from Wiregrass Ranch, will start at third base.
Wiregrass Ranch hired Jeff Swymer as its third baseball coach in as many seasons. The former Riverview assistant takes over a team expected to be one of the North Suncoast's most competitive. Look for players such as Josh Johnson and Saint Leo signee Spencer Bowles to lead a team that expects to be far improved from 13-12 in '09.
Mustangs on the move
Mitchell loses a big portion of its pitching staff including its ace, Patrick Schuster. He was thrust into the national spotlight after throwing four consecutive no-hitters, a state record. The top candidates to replace the lost pitching are Conner Hale and Kevin Games. Hale moves from shortstop and Games comes in from centerfield, and both will be expected to continue their strong hitting from a season ago to make up for uncertainty on the mound.
North Suncoast Super Seven
1. Land O'Lakes: Spent the fall playing in a Hillsborough County league. Already faced Jesuit in a 6-4 preseason loss.
2. Springstead: The Eagles are solid from top to bottom and expect to compete for a district title.
3. Wiregrass: First-year coach Jeff Swymer has one of the best teams in Pasco County.
4. Wesley Chapel: The Wildcats hope to capitalize on the program's first district title.
5. Pasco: The Pirates have more questions than answers, but coach Ricky Giles should have another solid club.
6. Hernando: Ask around and most coaches say the Leopards have a promising young group.
7. Mitchell: The focus for the Mustangs switches from good pitching to good hitting. That's the key to reaching the postseason.
Anclote: First-year program is young and inexperienced, but expects to compete in every game.
Bishop McLaughlin: Catcher T.J. Wharton has orally committed to North Carolina Greensboro.
Gulf: Coach Shaun Wiemer said losing kids to Anclote will hurt the JV, but he has a hardworking group led by junior Sam Kepner.
Hudson: The Cobras are led by coach Keith Newton and with six returning starters he expect them to finish strong.
River Ridge: Many expect the Royal Knights to make plenty of noise this season.
Zephyrhills: Welcomes coach Chad Sommers from Saint Leo and former Wesley Chapel coach Erik Shafer to lead the Bulldogs.
Players to watch
P Connor Coplon, Sr., Land O'Lakes
P Jason Garcia, Sr., Land O'Lakes
P/OF Kevin Games, Jr. Mitchell
INF Patrick Dwyer, Sr., Springstead
UT Brennan Allen, Sr., Pasco
P Cole Miraglia, Sr., Wesley Chapel
INF Geoff Degroot, Jr., Wesley Chapel
DH Josh Romeo, Jr., Hernando Christian
UT Spencer Bowles, Sr., Wiregrass Ranch
P/SS Conner Hale, Jr., Mitchell
P/3B Austin Aubuchon, Jr., Land O' Lakes
OF Josh Johnson, Jr., Wiregrass Ranch
DH T.J. Wharton, So., Bishop McLaughlin
Class 5A, District 7
Central, Ocala Forest, Ocala West Port, Springstead
Class 4A, District 8
Citrus, Hernando, Land O'Lakes, Lecanto, Nature Coast, River Ridge, Sunlake, Wiregrass Ranch, Zephyrhills
Class 4A, District 7
Anclote, Gulf, Hudson, Pasco, Mitchell, Ridgewood, Wesley Chapel
Class 2A, District 10
Bishop McLaughlin, Brooks-DeBartolo, Calvary Christian, Indian Rocks Christian, Tampa Prep
Class A, District 9
Academy at the Lakes, Cambridge, Canterbury, Carrollwood, Keswick Christian, Lakeside Christian, Tampa Bay Christian
Class A, District 8
Bayshore Christian, Bradenton Christian, Citrus Park Christian, Hernando Christian, Seffner Christian
Izzy Gould can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 421-3886.