With 19 players _ seven of them starters _ returning from a team that advanced to the regional final last year, Dunedin was supposed to be a good baseball team again this year. Good enough to give coach Greg Nichols one last shot at a state title before he retires after 27 seasons.
The Falcons have lived up to their billing, winning an 11th district title and making their fourth regional final appearance under Nichols when they play host to Port St. Lucie (25-5) tonight at 7:30 at Dunedin Stadium in Class 5A action.
Dunedin (22-8) has won six straight games, but it has been anything but easy. If the Falcons are going to make a run at a state title, which they haven't done since a final four appearance in 1968, four years after winning the Class A state championship, they will have to get past one of the best pitchers in the nation.
With a fastball clocked at 95 mph, the Jaguars' Rick Ankiel has been dubbed a probable top-five pick in the June free-agent draft after posting an 11-0 record highlighted with four no-hitters, four one-hitters and 152 strikeouts in 69 innings. It wasn't until last week that Ankiel surrendered his first earned run of the season, raising his ERA to 0.10.
"A couple of the boys saw him at the Team 1 tryouts in Lakeland," Nichols said. "He's a quality pitcher no doubt."
Dunedin will counter with senior Jay Frazer (7-4), who earned a regional semifinal victory against defending state champion Sarasota Friday night. Frazer gets the nod over sophomore Ty Banks.
"Jay has more experience," Nichols said. "And when you get to this level, I felt we had to come back strong with (the pitcher who has) more experience."
Senior outfielder D DeSantis, who was batting .382 before missing time with an injured left thumb sustained on April 1, is listed as questionable but has taken batting practice and could play. If he doesn't, the Falcons have proven they can win without him.
Slick-fielding Aaron Soberiaj has solidified the Dunedin defense and started two double plays against Sarasota. He has also driven in 34 runs. And seldom-used Darryl Borton went 2-for-3 in the designated hitter spot.
"We have had a lot of kids come through," Nichols said. "And a lot of them weren't marquee names. That's how well-rounded we are."
Dunedin avoided a regional final rematch with Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, the nation's top-ranked team before the Jaguars beat them using No. 2 starter Brian Sullivan. The Falcons were rooting for Port St. Lucie to win, not only because of the Raiders' ranking but because Dunedin avoided a five-hour trip south.
But the Falcons didn't care who they faced. "Not at all," Nichols said. "We are excited to be here."