SEFFNER — Hillsborough County has a rich baseball tradition and the South Shore and Brandon area has produced a number of state-contender caliber teams, most recently Armwood and Brandon.
But even with all the success through the years, one word may most accurately describe this year's crop of teams — depth.
"No," Brandon coach Matt Stallbaumer said when asked if he could recall this number of quality area teams. "Top to bottom in our district and in (5A-8), there isn't any night off."
In districts 5A-8 and 6A-8, the biggest on this side of the county, there are a number of teams that can emerge as playoff participants.
"We have six solid teams in our district," Armwood coach Mike Wrenn said. "Every team has solid pitching and a bunch of tough, scrappy hitters."
Armwood and Brandon have been the most successful in the playoffs as of late. Brandon reached the state semifinals in 2008, and Armwood lost in the state semis in 2009 before falling in extra innings at the state final last year.
Class 6A, District 8
Outlook: Local teams Brandon and Bloomingdale will have stiff competition from Alonso, Plant and Wharton in a tough district.
"It seems like every team has four or five good position players and a couple of good arms this year," Stallbaumer said. "These guys know that they will have to battle every night."
Brandon has the challenge of replacing a number of key starters, including Roderick Shoulders, James Ramsey and Spencer Haynes, all of whom are playing college baseball this year.
"Yeah, we have some big shoes to fill," Stallbaumer said. "But that's what I love about coaching at Brandon. Those other guys pass the torch to the next group and there are expectations."
Pitching is a strength for the Eagles with returners Chris Toney, who hasn't allowed an earned run through 12 innings so far this season, and reliever Chase Sparkman.
Bloomingdale also figures into the mix and shown early power throughout the lineup. The Bulls have five homers in the first five games, led by outfielder Austin Wilson's two. Junior shortstop Richie Martin, who's batting .400 going into tonight's district game at Brandon, recently committed to Florida while outfielder Brycen Gladbach leads the Bulls with a .529 average (as of press time).
Outlook: This district, much like 6A-8, sets up as one of the most competitive in the county, if not the state. Armwood, Plant City, Durant and Riverview are all viable postseason contenders and those four will likely slug it out all season until the district tournament.
Armwood returns a very experienced club and could be considered the early favorite in this talented group. The Hawks lost just two starters from last year's team although both, Zack Powers and Tyler Alexander, were major contributors.
Josh Spano, Sean Cramer and Jackson Fameree pack a potent punch in Armwood's lineup. Tanner Emmons, Cramer and Spano will carry the workload on the mound.
"These guys have been there before and they know what it takes to get back (to the state tournament)," Wrenn said. "Before each season I put the district, regional and state tournament dates on their calendar because that's the expectation we have here now."
Plant City, which along with Armwood reached the playoffs last year, is off to an impressive start. The Raiders are in the midst of a baseball revival under second-year coach Mark Persails. After scuffling along throughout most of the decade, Persails guided Plant City to a 18-9 record and a playoff appearance last year.
The Raiders already own wins against Armwood and Riverview in 2011, in addition to a season-opening victory against a tough King squad in the Saladino Tournament. Second baseman Art Knight has three homers for the Raiders and Plant City is hitting a robust .389 on the young season.
The Sharks haven't had a winning season since 2007, but that is likely to change in 2011. Second baseman Justin Rose already has two homers while pitcher Cesar Malave hasn't allowed an earned run in 8 2/3 innings.
Durant, which finished atop the regular-season district standings last year, was bounced from the tourney in the semifinals but will again be right in the mix.
Outlook: After struggling to an 8-15 record in its first full year of varsity competition last season, Strawberry Crest has been a nice surprise so far. The Chargers are off to a 4-3 start with wins against area power Jesuit and Bloomingdale. Strawberry Crest, along with Middleton, Jefferson and the Tigers, all have a shot at reaching the postseason.
Outlook: Seffner Christian finished 9-13 a year ago, but appears to be much stronger this season. The Crusaders stepped up their schedule by participating in the Saladino Tournament and are off to a 4-1-1 start and are hitting .350 as a team.
Seffner Christian's toughest competition in the district should come from Hernando Christian, whom the Crusaders play March 18.
Brandon Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.