BRANDON — Last year at this time, things were much different for Brandon High's baseball team.
The Eagles were 3-2 and on their way to a pedestrian 6-4 start. Few in local baseball circles were talking about Brandon, a team starting seven sophomores. Crowds were sparse and college coaches weren't zeroing in on the young Eagles.
What a difference one year makes.
"This is a whole new ball game," Brandon coach Matt Stallbaumer said.
Indeed it is. The sophomores are now juniors, Brandon is considered by many to be the top team in the Hillsborough County. The Eagles certainly won't be sneaking up on anyone.
Brandon is now the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
"We may be looked at differently coming into this year," Stallbaumer said. "But we're trying to do the same basic things that got us to where we went last year — pitch well and play sound defense."
But the Eagles will certainly do so with much more fanfare. Brandon rebounded from that so-so start to the season by winning 17 of it next 19 games. During that stretch, the Eagles ripped off six straight wins to capture the prestigious Tony Saladino Tournament in stirring fashion. Brandon then marched through districts and the playoffs, reaching the state semifinal before bowing out to eventual state champion Dunedin.
"It was a nice run," Stallbaumer said. "But we have more work to do."
There is little doubt Brandon is capable of making another deep run into the playoffs. But in arguably the toughest district in the county, making the postseason will be a task. Both Bloomingdale and Armwood are strong this year, and the three teams will likely battle it out for just two playoff spots come April.
"Armwood and Bloomingdale are a lot like us," Stallbaumer said. "They both have very good pitching and defense. I think for them, just like us, is who will come up with the timely hits."
Brandon, off to a 3-0 start and facing visiting Newsome tonight at 7, has been hit by a string of early-season injuries and illness. Matt Bennett (ribs) and Aaron Estrada (collarbone) have only recently been cleared to participate while starting center fielder James Ramsey has been playing through a nagging knee injury. The flu bug also swept through the team and coaching staff.
"From a coaching standpoint, it's been annoying," Stallbaumer said. "You show up every day to get to work and it seems like there has been someone new on the inactive list."
The Eagles' lineup will look very similar to last year's club. Vernon White and Estrada will plug the hole vacated by left fielder Chris Bradford. Eric Arce transferred to Lakeland but the Eagles return the meat of their order: Mike Smith, Roderick Shoulders and James Ramsay. Senior Dan Trnka and his four wins are gone, but starters Austin Browder and Cory Schools are back, as is reliever Chase Sparkman.