Seminole High's Sean McClellan walked out to the mound last spring in Gainesville and stood atop the hill he hopes to call home.
Standing close by was University of Florida star pitcher John Burke. Watching from the dugout was Gators coach Joe Arnold.
"I was nervous. I felt like I had to perform. Like I was possessed," McClellan said. "The place just captivated me. I sort of felt like I was standing on a volcano waiting for it to explode. I just knew then that this was where I wanted to be."
On that day, McClellan was dressed in his Sunday best as he took in the landscape. He swayed back and forth, stared at homeplate and hummed a couple of fake throws at the backstop.
"I was just overcome with excitement," McClellan said. "There were so many visions running through my head. I just wanted to stay out there and isolate every moment."
That experience gave McClellan the incentive he needed to sign with the Gators during the early signing period last November.
"I visited Florida State, Georgia, Clemson and Auburn," said McClellan, who is regarded as the best pitcher in Pinellas County this season. "But there was no place that I wanted to call home except for Gainesville. I knew when I walked out there that day that was going to be my domain."
It also gave the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Warhawk more leverage in dealing with major-league scouts.
"Deciding early and having the opportunity to decide early gave me a bargaining chip, so to speak," said McClellan, who carries a 3.4 grade-point average and plans to major in business management. "If professional baseball is a possibility, someone would have to make an attractive offer because I've always wanted to go to school."
McClellan, who has compiled a 16-5 mark in three years and went undefeated during his freshman and junior seasons, also took much of the pressure off himself by signing early.
"I didn't want that pressure of choosing colleges, visiting schools and someone watching your every move every time you go out on the mound to get in my way of performing," McClellan said. "I wanted to concentrate on winning a state championship for coach (Bill) Brinker."
Still, McClellan must deal with the pressure of being considered the best in the county _ an honor he likes.
"Some people say that signing early means you might not try as hard or you might get a little lazy in your work habits," McClellan said. "But I feel the pressure more this year because I'm expected to lead, we have a solid team capable of going a long way, and I want to keep that recognition of being able to do the job at hand."
According to Brinker, the job for McClellan is to take charge and lead the favored Warhawks to the Pinellas County Athletic Conference title.
Despite his strengths as a pitcher, McClellan's value might be even more important when he's not on the mound. He has played first base the past three years and had a .270 batting average last year.
"When I'm on the mound I form a conscious tunnel. I don't see anything else because I'm concentrating heavily on the mound," McClellan said. "Playing first base allows me to see the game differently and share in another responsibility. I like the break and challenge of playing first after pitching."
"Sean is a great competitor," Brinker said. "He, along with (David) Burns, must come through for us to have a good year."
With McClellan and the junior Burns forming the county's best 1-2 pitching combination, it gives Seminole an edge over contenders Dunedin, Northeast and Gibbs.
"With their pitching depth, Seminole has to be considered the best," East Lake coach Lee Byers said. "They have experienced starters returning too."
The Warhawks, who lost 1-0 in 15 innings to Dunedin in the district championship last year, return six starters from a team that went 22-8.
R.J. Hendricks, Eric Ondrey, Greg Hillengas, Greg Pacitti and Steve Wicks will be counted on to take the pressure off McClellan and Burns. Junior right-hander Brett McKee is a strong No. 3 starter, and freshman second baseman Kurt Bultmann has been a pleasant surprise. Freshman right-hander Gary Fecarotta, who is academically ineligible the first two weeks of the season, could leap into the pitching rotation if he returns.
"Seminole has everyone back," said Northeast coach Paul Costello, who transferred from Gibbs. "With that experience, they are clearly the favorites."
But Costello inherited a Northeast team that is a strong contender for the PCAC title with its four-man pitching rotation. Jeff D'Amico is a 6-6 junior right-hander who is emerging as a "can't miss" prospect. D'Amico, who just turned 16, also can play third base or shortstop, is a switch-hitter and has a 4.0 GPA. He sets the stage for Northeast's trio of lefties Travis Smith, Shawn Austin and Mark Taylor.
Dunedin, which won its region last year, will again be strong with experienced players like Darren Bush, Caleb Hamilton, Jimi Huffman and Brad Jackson, all of whom played for Dunedin's Big League team that went to the World Series last summer. Coach Greg Nichols calls Bush one of the top two hitters he has ever coached.
"We'll be in the hunt," Nichols said. "Seminole is very solid with its 1-2 pitching punch and Northeast can come at you with a number of pitchers."
Gibbs could be a surprise depending on how well the county's premier player, Cory Brown, handles the pressure. First-year coach Mike Hale calls Brown a player with unlimited potential. The 6-0 right-hander will play in the outfield, but is regarded as a definite draft pick because of his arm.
Another sleeper could be St. Petersburg with its strong pitching rotation led by senior right-hander Brent Hoover. Sophomore starters Dan Topping and Tommy Kidwell will aid the team offensively.