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Baseball teams swinging for improvement

The 2005 baseball season was not a particularly good one for Eastern Hillsborough schools. Only three teams advanced past districts to participate in the regional tournament, and no team won a regional game.

This year should be better. Durant, Brandon, Bloomingdale and Armwood, which usually field strong teams, have done so again this season. Upstarts like Plant City and Newsome are hoping to create some havoc.

Durant's Carmine Giardina and Riverview's Billy Bullock are listed by several recruiting services as top 100 national prospects. Others, like Brandon's Hanani Kekeuwa and Newsome's Eric Ginn, aren't getting the same national attention but are poised to break out.

Here's a look at the season:

ARMWOOD

CLASS: 5A, District 8

LAST SEASON: 13-13; quarterfinalist in the Saladino Tournament; runnerup in district; lost 9-5 in regional quarterfinals to Winter Haven.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Armwood moves up from class 4A to 5A one season after making it to the regional tournament. The Hawks are in a wide open district. They have as good a shot as any team of winning it. Last season they blew a 7-2 lead and lost 14-7 to top-seeded Jefferson in the district final.

Armwood will be without graduated centerfielder R.J. Anderson. Anderson, a draft pick of the Texas Rangers, batted .384 in 2005 with seven home runs, 36 runs scored, and 32 RBI to earn spots on the all-state second team and the Times all-county first team.

Eleventh-grade first baseman Jared Simon returns for the Hawks. He was a Times all-county honorable mention selection last season.

CURRENT RECORD: 3-1. Armwood blasted East Bay 12-1 on Saturday, but was defeated by Brandon, 5-2, on Tuesday.

NEXT GAME: Tonight against Wharton.

BLOOMINGDALE

CLASS: 5A, District 8

LAST SEASON: 16-9

SEASON OUTLOOK: The Bulls are just two years removed from reaching the state semifinals, where they lost 5-4 in extra innings.

Last season Bloomingdale won nine of their last 11 games to end the regular season but failed to advance beyond districts.

The Bulls should have a good chance of adding to last season's success. They only graduated three seniors.

"Our district is going to be tough," Coach K.B. Skull said.

Twelfth-grade infielder Michael Green (5-foot-11, 165 pounds) returns. He was an honorable mention in the Times all-county selection last season and will be expected to be the leader of a young Bulls team.

CURRENT RECORD: 1-1. The Bulls avenged an opening-day loss to Armwood with a 12-2 pounding of Freedom.

NEXT GAME: Tonight at Newsome.

BRANDON

CLASS: 5A, District 8

LAST SEASON: Finished 16-12; semifinalist in Saladino Tournament; district runnerup to Hillsborough; lost in regional quarterfinals (3-2 in eight innings) to a Gaither team that made it to the state final.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Brandon graduated nine players from last year's district runnerup squad. Coach Matt Stallbaumer has shifted his lineup in the team's opening games to see which players give him the best chance of winning.

"We have some guys who were underclassmen last year that are going to have to step up," Stallbaumer said.

Stallbaumer has no problem figuring out who his top pitcher is. Twelfth-grader Hanani Kekeuwa, a Times second team selection, was 8-2 last season with an ERA below 1.50. In the Eagles 10-0 win over Freedom, Kekeuwa allowed just one hit while striking out eight and walking two batters.

Kekeuwa is recovering from a collapsed lung he suffered during conditioning workouts in late September. There were concerns he would not be able to pitch this season.

"It's good to see him out there on the mound again," Stallbaumer said.

CURRENT RECORD: 2-1. Victories over Freedom and Armwood and a 10-0 loss to King.

NEXT GAME: Tonight against Tampa Bay Tech.

DURANT

CLASS: 6A, District 8

LAST SEASON: District runnerup; Finished 13-13 after losing 4-3 to Osceola in the regional quarterfinals.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Durant is probably the strongest team in East Hillsborough, due in part to the return of second team all-state pitcher/infielder Carmen Giardina.

"When he's on, there's nobody who can touch him," head coach Ron Fussell said.

Giardina was a Times all-county first team selection last season after going 5-1 with a 1.10 ERA. 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 pick in June's baseball draft.

Also returning for Durant is 12th-grader Chip Bowden. He's a 6-foot-2, 210-pound outfielder who was a Times second team all-county selection last season.

CURRENT RECORD: 4-0, including victories over Plant and Plant City.

NEXT GAME: Tonight at Riverview.

EAST BAY

CLASS: 6A, District 8

LAST SEASON: 6-17

SEASON OUTLOOK: Head coach Nelson Menendez took over a program that went 3-20 the year before he arrived and doubled its win total. He is in his second year and looking for continued progress this season.

"We're a little deeper this year, and we've had better pitching so far this season," Menendez said.

East Bay returns only three starters from last season. The Indians have as many ninth-graders in the starting lineup (two) as they do 12th-graders.

Of the five new players to East Bay's program, four of them played winter ball with the team, and three of them worked out with the team during the summer.

Twelfth-grade infielder Brandon Blake returns for the Indians as does 12th-grader outfielder Lamar Jackson. Both were all-county honorable mention selections by the Times last season.

CURRENT RECORD: 0-4, including a 6-2 loss to Plant City and a 10-0 loss to Durant.

NEXT GAME: Tonight against Sarasota-Riverview.

NEWSOME

CLASS: 5A, District 8

LAST SEASON: 12-12; lost to Jefferson in district semifinals.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Along with Armwood, Newsome will make the jump from 4A to 5A this year. That will put the Wolves in District 8, one of the toughest around.

Newsome coach Chad Haschel, who has been there since the school opened three years ago, starts a team that is young but has experience. The Wolves feature a lineup with six 11th-graders who are three-year starters.

"When we started three years ago, we didn't have one player with varsity experience," Haschel said.

Newsome will have to contend with losing the bats of Ryan Carnley and Dan Branca and the pitching of Blake Spencer. Eleventh-grader Eric Ginn returns as a pitcher and infielder, however. Last season, he was a Times all-county honorable mention selection.

Right-handed pitcher Matt Greer also returns. He threw seven innings of one-hit ball in the Wolves 1-0, eight-inning victory over Wharton.

CURRENT RECORD: 2-2; Newsome owns victories over Tampa Bay Tech and Wharton; the Wolves lost to King and Hillsborough.

NEXT GAME: Tonight against Bloomingdale.

PLANT CITY

CLASS: 6A, District 8

LAST SEASON: 3-20; Lost 2-1 in district tournament to regional quarterfinalist Durant.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Plant City has turned some heads by starting out the season with three victories, two coming against district rivals East Bay and Lakeland.

"To start out 3-0 is definitely a good start," head coach Ken White said. "All-around, we're a better team this year."

Plant City is a relatively experienced team with 11th- and 12th-graders making up the majority of its starting lineup. Tenth-grader Aaron Gerbasi is the ace of the pitching staff, while 11th-grade transfer Aaron Starkey comes over from Florida's east coast as the No. 2 pitcher.

CURRENT RECORD: 3-1, already matching the team's wins from last season.

NEXT GAME: Tonight against Sarasota.

RIVERVIEW

CLASS: 6A, District 8

LAST SEASON: 17-7

SEASON OUTLOOK: Third-year Riverview coach Bill Leiby has some holes to fill after losing Times first team all-county players Garrett Maines and Tyler Nessmith to graduation.

Maines, a catcher, batted .424 with nine home runs last season to earn second team all-state honors. Now playing for the Auburn Tigers, Maines broke five school records as a senior.

Pitcher/infielder Tyler Nessmith batted .382 with five home runs and posted a 6-2 pitching record with a 2.48 ERA.

"We're young," Leiby said. "We don't have any seniors in our batting lineup."

If the Sharks are to match their 2005 success, 6-foot-6, 210-pound right-handed pitcher Billy Bullock will have to shoulder much of the load. Bullock broke his floating rib in a one-hit, 11-strikeout opening performance of his junior year and missed much of last season. He is a top 100 prospect and will pitch for the University of Florida next year.

CURRENT RECORD: 0-3, including a 12-10 loss to King and a 3-2 loss to Sarasota.

NEXT GAME: Tonight against Durant.

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