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PHCC young and lean

The Conquistadors lack depth with only 19 players, 15 of whom are freshmen.

Some ominous signs from the Pasco-Hernando Community College baseball team: The Conquistadors were only 24-23 last year. Of their 19 players, 15 are freshmen. Its top four hitters, and 40 of its 50 home runs, are gone, as are 23 of its 24 pitching wins.

How ominous a sign these things are remains to be seen.

"It's been quite awhile (since we've been this young)," coach Steve Winterling said. "We only have 19 on the roster, so we don't have the depth. You'll probably see a lot of musical lineups early on."

So it goes with a junior college program. Winterling gets his players for only two years, so finding a balance between experience and youth is essential. This year, that task is even trickier.

But Winterling isn't about to write off the season because of a thin lineup jammed with youth. Instead, he thinks he can mold it into a Suncoast Conference contender by year's end.

Emphasis on thinks.

"For this team right now, I don't know what to expect," Winterling said. "We have some good, hard workers and have had some good, hard spring practices. They are very disciplined. We're just a team that needs to get some games under our belt."

Last year, PHCC struggled down the stretch after injuries took away Mike Aranda and Raul Cruz, arguably its best players. For any kind of success this year, the Conquistadors must stay healthy.

One of the few returnees is a good one: catcher Robbie Robertson. Redshirted as a freshman, Robertson was the only PHCC player to make first-team all-SC after hitting .324. He will handle apitching staff that includes one returnee _ Hudson's Derrick Victor _ and a lot of question marks.

Victor was 1-2 with a 6.21 ERA as a long reliever, though those numbers are not indicative of how well he pitched late in the year. He will pitch again out of the bullpen, with the starting duties falling to freshmen Joel Sayre (River Ridge), Tim Reckner (Kissimee Osceola), Ty Banks (Dunedin) and Alan Green (Gulf).

"Just the experience factor with those guys is going to help when you have a catcher like Robertson," Winterling said. "That's a key ingredient."

Winterling thinks his team will be strong up the middle with Robertson, second baseman Mickey Santiago (Jacksonville Bolles), and shortstops Zak McDonald (a transfer from Texas-Arlington who also can pitch) and Mike McMillan (Ridgewood).

Bobby Weimer, another Ridgewood product, will probably be the starter when he returns in four to five weeks from a broken jaw suffered during a bunting drill a week ago.

Sophomore first baseman Garrett Jones (.281, 3 homers, 30 RBI) is a proven bat coming back, and Donnie Kirschner (Gaither) and Cory Hockinson (North Fort Myers) will handle third.

The outfield will be manned by sophomore Keith Posta (Citrus), who hit .279 with 15 RBI (but no homers). He will be joined by any combination of Kevin Collins (Land O'Lakes), David Gairepy (Ridgewood) and Matt Blumberg, a transfer from Stetson.

"It'll be whoever's swinging the stick well," Winterling said.

That bodes well for Collins, a 24th-round draft choice of the Chicago Cubs who has hit some impressive bombs in batting practice and scrimmages. He probably will bat third or fourth and will be counted on to replace Cruz's power _ provided his defensive skills improve to the point where Winterling can leave him in the outfield.

"He was probably our biggest signee," Winterling said. "The way he performed in fall practice and the spring, he seems right now to be our top recruit. He's going to provide a lot of offensive punch for us."

The question is: How soon? Winterling is taking a wait-and-see attitude, an attitude he thinks fits the task at hand.

"Freshmen coming in can have great success," he said. "Sometimes for freshmen hitters it can be a little tougher. There are a lot of good arms at this level. It's going to be a big challenge for them and a big challenge for us."

Up next:SOCCER