Over the next week we will be bringing you quick looks, expectations and our projections for our area Hillsborough County baseball teams for the 2021 season. Make sure to check back regularly as our preseason coverage continues with look-ins on Blake, Freedom, Hillsborough, Riverview and Tampa Bay Tech.
Under second-year head coach Herbert Ayers, the Yellow Jackets have hopes to be an improved team on the field in 2021. We aren’t going to give a gilded prediction of things for Blake, as the team will again face a steep challenge on the field in one tough district contending with Jesuit, Jefferson & Hillsborough. However, consistency for the team over the past year-plus will help this squad, which stayed together for summer play and found success in some action this fall. According to Ayers a young team last year has steadily come together and he is seeing noticeable changes in the attitude and a dedication to practice and preparedness. The Yellow Jackets feature a good core, returning both captains from last season in senior Tavian Woods (RHP/MIF) and junior Titus Woods-Ayers (CF). Woods has focused on cutting down on his strikeouts at the plate and developed more consistent contact to go along with some good speed that will help the team from the leadoff position, while Woods-Ayers has worked hard in the offseason on strength and hitting – now regularly taking advantage of the short-porch at Blake’s home field and depositing baseballs into the Hillsborough River. Senior Brandon Mirza (SS/P) will pair with Woods in the lead pitching roles, while Jake Montgomery will return to the middle of the order for the team.
Freedom coach Tripp Merrell good-naturedly deflected our question to highlight individual player expectations for the upcoming season, instead saying that it is “hard to narrow it down to two or three guys as we are going to need everyone to contribute” for the Patriots success this season. Freedom graduated its top three inning-producing pitchers from last season’s 1-6 campaign, and it’s top two hitters, however the team will return a number of varsity experienced players. In the fall we caught a couple of Pats games and we liked what we saw from sophomore catcher Gio Mendoza defensively, as well as some excellent attack-the-zone pitching from junior LHP Michael Morrison, and returning leadership from captain SS Gabriel Pollard.
A young Terriers team last season put up some solid wins in a 6-3 showing prior to the early ending, and that group has steadily improved through the summer and fall. Hillsborough returns 6-of-its-7 top hitters with Tanner Jones (3B/C) returning ater a team-leading .480 average in 2020, while senior catcher Jack Slater is back to handle the pitching staff and will be key in driving in runs on offense as well. A strength for the Terriers is the versatility of its athletes, with senior righty Brady Burgess returns after posting 14 hits in nine games last season and will lead the team on the mound, while also serving as a corner infielder. Junior RHP/1B Sal Urso Jr. will also be pivotal to the pitching game, while freshman Cam Mallo has already impressed the team earning the nod as the leadoff hitter entering the year, while also playing second and pitching.
Riverview enters its fourth-straight season under a new head coach as last season’s assistant coach and former Chamberlain skipper Jason Smith brings the Sharks into the 2021 campaign. A solid group of seniors look to improve on last season’s 6-3 mark, but won’t have anything handed to them with some tough games in the first three weeks. On the mound senior captain RHP Kipp Kochera, and junior RHP Nate Hook will set the tone, while Smith said he’s also excited to see senior LHP Ronnie Brandon’s improvements on the hill. Smith said he’s been very impressed with the growth behind the plate and gains in the weight room from senior captain Gavin Hunter, who he predicts will have a “breakout year this year.” Transfer Christian Tavares (2B) from Armwood has “blown away” the coaches with a selfless attitude and dedication to his teammates, that will go well with a good bat and excellent speed.
Tampa Bay Tech
Titans HC Brett Goodrich said he’s really excited with the fire in his team’s belly heading into the season and is expecting to see more, as this young team goes to work. How young? Well, TBT has three seniors and at this point none are expected to be opening day starters. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be inexperienced with junior LHP/OF Alex Jackson bringing three years of varsity experience and leading the team on the mound and in hits last year. Goodrich said Jackson has picked up velocity and is looking really good on the mound. Junior RHP Evan Mobley returns to the hill after striking out 18 in 12.1 innings and going 1-1 last season, and rounding out the starting rotation will by sophomores Ethan Jones and Tyler Shultz. Handling the catching and providing offensive protection will be junior Jonnathan Figueroa. The Titans have a friendly start to the season and Goodrich said he hopes the team can build some good early momentum.