Durant baseball coach Ron Fussell can rest easy this season knowing he has senior hurler Carmine Giardina at his disposal.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound lefty was a Times' all-Hillsborough County pick last spring after going 5-1 with a 1.10 ERA. He spent the summer trying out for the USA junior national team, making it through two rounds of cuts before being named one of six alternates to the 20-man squad.
With Giardina on the mound, Fussell and his players believe they can compete with any team.
"When he's on, there's nobody who can touch him," Fussell said. "Our team feels that we can beat anybody when he's on the mound."
Giardina, used mostly in relief last season, will be the Cougars' No. 1 starter. Paired with fellow senior Tony Garcia, a 5-foot-10, 160-pound righty, Durant has two pitchers who will be tough outs for opposing teams.
"We're real excited about this season," Fussell said. "Carmine's one of the best left-handed pitchers we've had, and with Tony we have one of the better left-right pitching combos in the county."
Rated the 23rd-best high school prospect in the country by Perfect Game USA, Giardina committed to the University of Texas and could be a high-round pick in June's draft.
His fastball consistently is clocked between 89-91 mph and has topped out at 93. He uses his fastball to set up his out pitches - a change up and curveball that Fussell said "can drop off the table."
Giardina also plays first base, and last season he batted .417. His success at the plate has, surprisingly enough, improved his pitching.
"I think being a hitter helps me as a pitcher," he said. "I try to imagine what the hitter thinks I'm going to throw and then throw the opposite."
Giardina's experience trying out for the junior national team also should help improve his pitching.
"I was there with 15 of the best pitchers in the country," he said. "Just being able to bounce things off each other was a great experience. It helps being able to compare myself to talent outside the county."
Durant made it to the Class 6A region quarterfinals last season before being ousted 4-3 by Osceola. As the Cougars' top starter and one of their best hitters, Giardina will be expected to shoulder a great deal of responsibility if the Cougars are to improve on last year's showing.
"This year we have a lot of seniors so we have good leadership," he said. "I want to make it to state. We lost in regionals last year and that's as far as I've made it. I want to go further this year."
Giardina also wants to make an impression at the county's signature baseball event - the Saladino Tournament.
"My main goal is to make the all-tournament team at the Saladino Tournament," he said.
"The Saladino all-tournament team is such a great honor. There are so many great players to come out of Hillsborough County, and they've all pretty much played at the Saladino. It would be an honor to add my name to that list."
Durant ace Carmine Giardina, who was named an alternate to the USA junior national team, also is pretty handy with a bat, hitting .417 last season.