BRANDON — The high school baseball season has been under way for about a month, but area teams and fans have been waiting for one event where the heat begins to get turned up: the Saladino Tournament.
"We're about to play Hillsborough County and I don't care where you look, it's one of the best around," Durant coach Butch Valdes said. "It's a great tradition that means a lot to the players, coaches and fans."
Valdes would know. He played in this tournament for Jefferson in the late '80s under veteran Jefferson coach Pop Cuesta, who will lead the Dragons into the 33rd annual Tony Saladino Tournament that starts Saturday.
"It's such a rich tradition," Valdes said. "It will be great to get out here and see Tony and Bertha (Saladino) and have fun and have the players experience this."
The Saladinos have been putting together the nationally recognized tournament since 1981, and its alumni include Major League Baseball greats Dwight Gooden, Tino Martinez, Fred McGriff and Luis Gonzalez.
The constant throughout the years has been quality baseball, but each team takes a little something different from this showcase. In Brandon's case, the sophomore-heavy Eagles went from relative unknowns to tournament champions in 2008. That season, Brandon reached the state semifinals before losing to eventual champion Dunedin.
"It was a springboard," Brandon coach Matt Stallbaumer said. "But it also gave us a chance to get consistency, and you have to have that to win this tournament. We got in a routine and things started working, and then it was just a matter of understanding what we could do. Then you just ride the momentum."
Each of the 28 teams — all 27 public schools plus charter school Brooks-DeBartolo — will play three games in four days during pool play, so pitching and depth are at a premium. Valdes said the tournament allows him to evaluate his team top to bottom.
"You get a chance to break in the players that don't see much time, so you see how deep you are," he said. "And it just takes you right into the meat of the season from there."
A breakdown of the pools:
Pool A: Brandon, Newsome, Freedom and Armwood.
This is going to be a tight one, with Newsome and Brandon likely fighting it out for the top spot. Starters Erik Dowse and Ryan Tauscher could give Newsome the edge in a format where pitching will be paramount.
Pool B: Durant, King, Brooks-DeBartolo and Spoto.
Durant looks to be the favorite in this pool, but King should not be counted out. Tyler Danish, who picked up his fifth win and hit a pair of home runs against Brandon on Tuesday, is the player to watch in this pool.
Pool C: Alonso, Jefferson, Plant City and Chamberlain.
Alonso has been an early surprise in 2013 after a down season last year, but veteran coach Pop Cuesta will have the defending champion Dragons ready.
Pool D: Steinbrenner, Strawberry Crest, Robinson, and Tampa Bay Tech.
This is Steinbrenner's bracket to lose. The Warriors' pitching is very deep with Logan LaPace and Nick Sucarichi and they have plenty of pop with infielder Cole Gordon, who has a pair of two home run games.
Pool E: Bloomingdale, Riverview, Leto and Blake.
Bloomingdale and Riverview will battle for the top spot here. Former Bulls' quarterback Cody Crouse, who's headed to Florida International on a baseball scholarship, is one of a handful of tough Bloomingdale hurlers.
Pool F: Plant, Sickles, Hillsborough, and Lennard.
Plant is stacked, featuring power-hitting third baseman Pete Alonso. Jake Woodford and John Suskauer provide the pitching depth, giving Plant a shot at a tournament title run.
Pool G: Gaither, Wharton, East Bay and Middleton.
This may be the most balanced of all the pools, partly because no team stands out. Louisville signee Tucker Newhouse is an excellent at shortstop for Wharton, while Gaither SS Oscar Mercado (FSU) is the top-rated (No. 9) county prospect in the state according to maxpreps.com.
Brandon Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.