This seems like a no-brainer. Jesuit battled its way to a fifth state championship last year, defeating Dunedin to claim the Class 6A crown. They return AND add to its entire pitching staff last season including starters Camden Minacci, Josh Mallitz, Justin Clark, while returning five hitters who surpassed the 25-hit mark last season including starting seniors catcher Bennett Lee and Henry Politz, and junior smashers Cole Russo and BJ Graham. But with success comes expectations, acclaim, and pressure. Jesuit has already received National No. 1 rankings from Perfect Game and MaxPreps, and that means the usual target on its team’s back may be even larger. The Tigers have one, focused goal every year – gold medals – and this team has the complete package to make it back-to-back. Jesuit returns to the Saladino Tournament under its new format this season, so there will be a number of local teams looking to take a shot – everyone will coming for the king.
2. Plant City
The 2019 state champion Raiders lost some monsters (All-813Preps MVP Parker Messick now at FSU, Cade Shissler now at Stetson, and Hunter Emerine) but are still stacked and absolutely have to be considered a title contending team once again. Seniors Jarod Wingo and Tyler Dowdy will be the heavy lifters on the mound, while Cole Cothren is coming off a county-leading, 42-hit season as a junior to lead the offense. Add in the growing baseball knowledge of 4-star football recruit DeMario Williams topping the lineup and patrolling center (and apparently also hitting the high 80s from the mound), more speed and leadership from Chris Rodriguez, and experienced returner Ryan Robinson, the Raiders again have high hopes.
If you haven’t caught on to a theme (or been paying attention to high school baseball for the last decade-plus) pitching depth is key. Sickles was a powerhouse last season, and though they lost some significant seniors including All-813Preps Pitcher of the Year Dylan Eskew, the Gryphons return a lot of strength all over the field. Senior Chase Centala brings it on the mound and at the plate, joined by junior lefty Holden Wade have a very good 1-2 punch on the mound. Coupled with an offense keyed by Trey Bacon and Kohl Robertson, Sickles will be chasing a return to the playoffs, especially after dropping a tough district semifinal to Plant last season.
Switching gears a bit, can a monster offense throw a wrinkle into the whole pitching leads the way thing? Bloomingdale is about to tell us. Four-of-the-five hitters topping Bloomingdale’s batting lineup hit .315 or better last season, and the fifth was a freshman Colby Shelton, who had 18 RBI, hit four doubles and three home runs. The key piece to this Brock Wilken, who became the first hitter in Hillsborough County to eclipse the double-digit home run plateau in 15 years with a dozen. So easy, right? Just pitch around him. Bookended by speedsters Antonio DeJesus and Dominic Gonnella, then followed by Jackson Hobbs and Shelton, and Wilken will gladly except being driven in 20-plus times this season after getting a free pass. The Bulls come in to the season with a bit of inexperience on the mound, but likely to improve on their total last season averaging five runs a game, other teams better make sure they scratch out everything they can.
Another team with two legit guys to kick games off on the mound Zach DeVito and Stetson signee Cole Stallings, the 2019 region semifinalist Wolves are looking to improve on an 18-win season this year. Another team with both depth on the mound and at the plate, Newsome’s offense will be driven by seniors Cade Afeld, Sawyer Smith, junior Kelsen Johnson and sophomore Lucas Phelps. The Wolves stay in the highest FHSAA classification (now 7A) and will have to contend with its recent district foe Sarasota Riverview, while adding Durant, its neighbor Riverview, Lennard and Lakewood Ranch to the mix. This should be a fun one to see play out.
The Wildcats have had at least 17 wins for three-straight seasons including last year’s 19-5 finish, however Wharton was stunned in the district semifinal and found itself on the outside looking in come region play. The Wildcats return its top seven hitters, led by seniors Grady Maguire and Steven Hotinski, with Zach Ehrhard, Dylan McDonald and Frank Micalleff in support. On the mound senior Carson Caso leads things, while junior Jackson Perkins and sophomore Ryan Fry add depth to the staff. Wharton has moved into a true heavy-hitter district, the new 7A-7, but the Wildcats will not be content looking in on the state playoffs this season.
7. Berkeley Prep
The Buccaneers return 10 seniors this season and have eyes set on a third-straight region run in 2020. Bolstered by seniors Ian Brown and Garrett Boeckle on the mound, and a lineup that returns top hitter Cade Kurland, junior Johnathan Bruno, senior Davis Childers and senior Alex Haire, the Buccaneers should make a playoff push again this season. Berkeley Prep’s district remained pretty similar to last year, meaning the Bucs will have to contend with perennial state power Calvary Christian and an always tough Clearwater Central Catholic. We look forward to seeing if the Bucs experience and depth can earn them a spot in Fort Myers this year.
The Warriors hit a bit of a rough patch to close the year dropping its last five games, but were 16-9 and reached the region tournament as the district runner-up. Along with Alonso, Palm Harbor, Plant, Sickles, and Wharton this will be an absolute battle for the district crown and we are 100% here for it. With a solid No. 1 on the mound in Brayden Heidel, leadership from catcher Griffin Garcia and shortstop Donovan Garcia, a big bat in junior first base/catcher Tayden Hall, and top-of-the-order hitter, centerfielder Ryan Lowder, Steinbrenner is going to be very tough.
The Ravens have two huge pieces in senior Sam Drumheller on the mound, and junior Renzo Gonzalez bringing it at the plate, which is a pretty nice place to start. It will be on the supporting cast to step up if Alonso wants to find its way back into state title contention. Our fourth team in this Top 10 from Class 7A-District 7, whomever comes out of this district will be battle tested for sure. Senior Sehjin Daley and Ty Bitman, and sophomore Sam Cole will need to support its pitchers at the plate, while any of the other six, double-digit inning eaters from a season ago will need to solidify things on the mound behind Drumheller.
Coming off back-to-back district title and state semifinal berths, the Falcons have been (in the FHSAA’s infinite wisdom) shuffled into a new district with defending state champions Plant City, and state runner-up Strawberry Crest, cuz you know, Egypt Lake is super close to Dover/Plant City. No matter, it’ll be business as usual for the defensive-minded, aggressive hitting and running Falcons, who will be led at the plate by Damien Breton, RJ Gutierrez, Jose Santos and Coltin Pizzo – who each eclipsed 23 hits, and produced double-digit runs and RBI a season ago. On the mound though, it’s a different story as two-year ace Christian Suarez and big-game hero Franklyn Hernandez have graduated. Coach JJ Pizzio has crafted a plan that may include a pitcher-an-inning change to keep opponents of balance, but with five lefty arms and seven righties something is bound to stick on the mound in front of a light’s out defense.