TAMPA — After Jesuit defeated Dunedin in last year’s Class 6A state baseball championship, first baseman Henry Politz had a warning to opponents about the team’s future.
“This is just the beginning," he said. “We’re going to be really good for a long time."
The senior is not the only one who believes that.
As the 2020 season begins, the Tigers are ranked as the top team in the nation by both Collegiate Baseball and Perfect Game. They were 27-5 last season and return just about the entire team.
Eight of nine players from last year’s starting lineup are back. Of the 207 ⅓ innings pitched last year, all but one was thrown by a returning pitcher. Fourteen players, including 12 seniors, are committed to Division I colleges.
Jesuit has won five state championships in its history, but the Tigers have never won consecutive titles. If it was ever going to happen, this would seem to be the year.
“We hadn’t even gotten to the interview room last year after winning it and our guys were talking about how we were going to win it again next year," Jesuit coach Miguel Menendez said. “And then the sophomores were talking about how we’re going to three-peat. Hold on. Let’s just enjoy this one."
It all begins Tuesday when Jesuit hosts Blake. The schedule has some challenges. The Tigers should be tested by teams like Fort Lauderdale Calvary Christian, which advanced to last year’s Class 4A state semifinals. Louisville Male, Strawberry Crest, Plant, Sarasota, Clearwater Calvary Christian and Venice are all top-tier teams on the schedule. And the Tigers are in the long-standing Saladino Tournament this year.
For any opponent, it would make their season to beat the top team in the country. The Tigers expect to get everyone’s best, which is fine with them.
“I like it," junior outfielder BJ Graham said. “I like the feeling of having everyone come after you. It gives you more motivation and work ethic. The guys are working even harder than last year."
Senior starting pitcher Camden Minacci was even more direct.
“I don’t think we want it any other way," he said.
Minacci, who is committed to Wake Forest, leads a staff of 11 pitchers who should all compete for innings. He was 12-1 as a junior and had 85 strikeouts in 62 innings. Josh Mallitz (a Mississippi commit), Justin Clark (West Virginia), Turner Thompson (Tulane), Alex Bryant (Holy Cross) and Tripp Russo (Adrian College) all return after throwing at least 16 innings in 2019.
And good luck pitching to Jesuit hitters. There is no letup throughout what should be a potent lineup. Catcher Bennett Lee, a Tulane commit, hit .442 as a junior and should leadoff. Politz (.355, seven doubles) and juniors Graham (.357, nine doubles), Nick Rodriguez (.375) and Cole Russo (.342, two home runs) are all back.
“There’s not a weak link," Minacci said. “Our No. 9 hitter could be the leadoff or No. 5 hitter at any other school. I don’t think anyone’s ace is going to be an issue."
With talent up and down the roster, it has made for some competitive intrasquad games. It’s also made from some tough decisions by Menendez. With so many returning players, he had to cut some players who probably could have made any other team.
Pitching is so deep that three members of the junior varsity are committed to Division I schools.
“Our junior and senior class is really loaded," Menendez said. “There is so much competition for jobs. It’s hard for players to get complacent."
While it’s difficult to go undefeated in baseball, it isn’t unprecedented. Calvary Christian went 30-0 in 2017. The Tigers hope to be the next area team to win every game.
“We know that we are better than every single team on paper," Politz said. “If we do everything right we should go undefeated. It’s very hard to do, but I think we’re ready to go.
“I think our backups could win the district. It’s a bold statement but it’s true. We’ve got guys who were cut from the team who are really good. This year’s team could definitely be better than last year’s team."
Minacci said he is more in awe of this team than anything.
“I don’t think all of us have come to terms with it (top national ranking)," Minacci said. “I know we are a great team. When we were stretching the other day I looked at the guys and thought that in Perfect Game’s eyes there is not one team in the country that is better than us. It is wild to think about that."