Love it. Hate it. Put it on the bulletin board. Prove us wrong! We absolutely can’t wait to be out there with you guys this season. Let’s Go!

1. Jesuit

Coach: Miguel Menendez (10th season)

2023 Record: 27-5 (Class 5A state runner-up)
Season Opener: Tuesday, vs Cypress Creek, 7pm
Outlook: No hemming and hawing this year. This one was locked in for us pretty early on. Jesuit is the county’s most complete team, and a title contender again this year. When we sent out our Coach’s Survey earlier this year and when we got a return from Miguel Menendez, we kind of chuckled at seeing 12 names on the “players to watch” box. Then we looked at the names and we couldn’t cross many of them off. We’ll just touch on a few here, for brevities sake. We start off with last seasons smaller classification All-813Preps Pitcher of the Year – Aden Knowles – an NC State signed righty, who went 7-0 with a 1.33 ERA, winning the Saladino Tournament final on the mound and taking home MVP honors. Menendez raved about the improvement from lefty McCall Biemiller, who racked up 23 K’s in 12 innings last spring – pointing to a focus on his command. Wilson Anderson was impressive in his freshman season, and returns after a summer run with the US National team; while expectations are high after seeing a lot of positive talk about sophomore RHP Kaden Waechter on social media this summer. The offense is a literal murderers’ row, but we’ll highlight a few starting with Vincent DeCarlo, who moves to his natural position as starting catcher this season. While primarily playing first base as a sophomore, he hit .342, with 18 RBI, nine doubles and three homers. Menendez labels DeCarlo as a “special player” and “whatever it is, he has it,” and adds he has the best arm strength behind the plate the coach has seen. SS Jacob Lozano hit .369 in ’23, driving in 17 and scoring 24 times, and he’ll be joined again in a strong middle infield by senior 2B Noah Sheffield (.281, 22 runs, 23 RBI, seven doubles, three homers). It’s the 30th anniversary of the 1994 state championship Tigers team, 10 years since the 2014 title, 1997, 2000, 2019, 2022 … nothing goes better with blue than GOLD!

2. Durant

Coach: Butch Valdes (16th season)

2023 Record: 20-6 (region semifinalist)
Season Opener: Tuesday, at Sickles, 7pm
Outlook: This is the highest preseason ranking we’ve attached to Durant in our eight seasons at 813Preps – and we’re just one voice in the chorus of high expectations for the Cougars. A true two-ace staff leads DOOOO-Rant into the season as UF commit Blaine Rowland (an All-813Preps first teamer last year; 5-1, 0.64 ERA, 66 K’s) is joined by Chase Mobley (2-3, 2.41 ERA, 48 K’s; Florida State signed transfer from Plant City). Both will also be relied on at the plate as Rowland hit .333 last spring, and Mobley hit .278 – both reaching double-digit RBI totals. Leading that offense however, is senior Noah Morales (High Point signee), who hit .321, drove in 25 and belted six homers last year. Durant is stacked with seniors on offense, including Nick April-Gath (.258, 20 runs; VCU signee), Pete Oderio (.263, five doubles), Devin Suero (.290, 10 runs, 10 RBI) and Tristan Brown. A cross-county visit to defending 6A champs Sickles will be a good first gut-check for the Cougars, and we can’t wait to watch it in person on Tuesday.

3. Sickles

Coach: Eric Luksis (Eighth season)

2023 Record: 30-2 (Class 6A State Champions)
Season Opener: Tuesday, vs Durant, 7pm
Outlook: Last year’s state championship run was incredible as a massive senior class, led by two-time All-813Preps Player of the Year Caden McDonald, pushed the Gryphons’ program to new heights. It also squarely affixes the target to Sickles’ backs. And though Sickles will be without seven-of-nine of its top hitters from last year, and half its innings on the mound, there is no expectations for a rebuilding year for coach Eric Luksis. We think there’ll be a learning curve for the returning starters and the fresh faces, but with senior Cameron Guise (.351, 18 RBI, 10 doubles; 6-0, 1.22 ERA, win in the state title game; Lipscomb signee) at the top of the rotation and at the plate, the Gryphons should be in very good shape. Junior Brandon Gonzales made eight appearances on the mound, going 7-0 with 40 K’s last year and makes for a formidable starting pair. Luksis pointed to Thomas Bly as another expected factor on the mound, as the Louisville commit had a good summer and fall. Offensively, junior Jordan Yost is coming off a .300 season with 21 RBI and 12 stolen bases; senior CF Jacob Dial hit .290, scored 16 runs and swiped 13 bags, and junior transfer Jacob Nazar (who drove in 10 at Alonso in ’23) will all support the staff. The Gryphons start the year with five games against teams on this list – all looking to knock off the defending champs – and we’ve set our expectations high for this team.

4. Gaither

Coach: Nelson North (10th season)

2023 Record: 22-7 (region finalist)
Season Opener: Tuesday, at Newsome, 7pm
Outlook: Can we talk about Michael Fernandez for a second? His junior season was superb as the lefty, Miami signee led the county with 114 punchouts, while going 10-1 with a 1.57 ERA for the district champion and region finalist Cowboys. Returning for his senior year as the ace, Fernandez is the favorite for our upper classification Pitcher of the Year before the first pearl has been thrown. Joining Fernandez in the rotation will be junior Anthony Linares (12 appearances, 0.93 ERA) and senior Zach Callahan (3-2, 1.65 ERA in 15 outings). Senior Nico Lopez set the pace on offense last season with a .435 average, with 26 RBI and 10 doubles – earning an All-813Preps First Team selection; while key returners in junior CF Jackson Mirza (.317, 20 runs, 27 stolen bases; USF commit), junior SS David Pina (.318, 14 runs; UAB commit), and Josh Choe (.281, 22 runs) give Gaither one of the more complete teams on paper in the county. The Cowboys first 10 games are ridiculous including a three-game opening week against Newsome, Plant and Jesuit, and back-to-back games in early March against Sickles (the team that ended Gaither’s year in the region final). This early run may leave a few dings in the W-L record, but can only help the Cowboys at the end of the year.

5. Plant

Coach: Dennis Braun (20th season)

2023 Record: 21-8 (Class 7A state runner-up)
Season Opener: Tuesday, at Riverview, 7pm
Outlook: Plant battled last season, as the Panthers clawed from a district runner-up spot all the way to Ft Myers, where the team fell victim to a buzzsawing, undefeated Parkland Stoneman Douglas (ranked No. 1 entering 2024 by MaxPreps). But what a run. Behind a brilliant ace in All-813Preps Pitcher of the Year Robert Satin, and solid seasons at the plate from five departing seniors, the Panthers 21-win season was impressive. This year with a solid offense led by senior Rocco DeMarinis (.325, 20 runs, 24 RBI; All-813Preps second team selection; High Point signee) and junior SS Cash Strayer (.318, 19 RBI; Florida commit), the Panthers are going to have to continue to support the pitchers as the team did last year, averaging nearly six runs-per-game. Senior catcher James Leach returns to handle the pitching staff, which will be anchored by senior Garrett Hill (5-2, 2.94 ERA) and DeMarinis. While key returners like senior 2B Tanner Swank (12 runs, 12 RBI), senior RHP Mitchell Doane, and junior 1B Danny Cerelli sure up a very good baseball team. The Panthers reached the Final 4 in ‘22, the state final in ’23 – we’d love to see them draped in gold medals in ’24.

6. Jefferson

Coach: Spencer Nunez (fourth season)

2023 Record: 20-8 (Class 4A state semifinalist)
Season Opener: Tuesday, at Sumner, 7pm
Outlook: Jefferson has reached the final four in two of three seasons under head coach Spencer Nunez, and have a pretty solid shot and another region title this season. Behind experienced returners on the mound, an aggressive and speedy offense, and a solid defense the Dragons will likely be the power in 4A in this area. A pair of All-813Preps First Teamers lead the way for Jefferson as senior SS/RHP Cameron Mallo (.405, 25 runs, 14 RBI, eight doubles; Presbyterian signee) and RHP Mikey Marroquin (6-3, 2.06 ERA, 77 K’s; Presbyterian signee) will be crucial to success. Land O’Lakes transfer James Van Meter, a lefty senior who struck out 18 in nine innings last season will be a huge help for the pitching staff, as he joins Marroquin and Cameron Copple (4-0, 1.66 ERA in 11 appearances). Copple also produced at the plate last year with 12 RBI, while senior Alliuq Troupe (.261, 17 runs, 12 stolen bases) and junior Jamarques Benton (.349, 20 RBI, 13 stolen bases) give Jefferson a dangerous meat of the order.

7. Tampa Catholic

Coach: Paul Russo, Jr (Third season)

2023 Record: 22-8 (region finalist)
Season Opener: Tuesday, vs SLAM, 6pm
Outlook: The growth of the program in the first two seasons under TC alumnus Paul Russo Jr. has been impressive to see. One of the top pitching staffs in the county (a team 1.26 ERA) led the Crusaders beyond the 20-win mark for the first time since 2009. TC swapped lopsided wins with Berkeley Prep in the postseason last Spring (Berkeley winning the district title, while the Crusaders topped the Bucs in the region semis), but couldn’t get by eventual state champions Calvary Christian in the region final. Though graduation hit the Crusaders pretty hard, key offensive returners like seniors 2B Hershey Sanchez (.337, 19 runs, 15 RBI; Eckerd signee) and C Ethan Frame (.311, 22 RBI; Pensacola State commit), and sophomore Cole Bitman (.250, 18 RBI, 12 runs) should stack up runs. Senior and All-813Preps second team selection Alex Sotiropolous (8-1, 2.13 ERA, 70 K’s; Columbia signee) is a big presence on the mound, while we are excited to see transfer OF/RHP Dominic Woodward get on the mound (previously at Plant, where he earned the win in the Panthers 2022 Saladino Championship game). The Crusaders are dealing with a few injuries heading to the season, but if the pitching staff can come close to recreating last season’s success, this will be a team breathing fire.

8. Alonso

Coach: Landy Faedo (22nd season)

2023 Record: 18-9 (region quarterfinalist)
Season Opener: Tuesday, at Lennard, 7pm

: The Ravens claimed a 7A-District 7 title last season behind a big senior class. Of Alonso’s eight leading hitters in 2023, only junior catcher Samuel Fernandez (.344, 10 RBI) remains, along with senior outfielder Carson Vega (who scored 17 runs; Newberry College signee). The offense will have a lot of fresh faces, and while the pitching staff lost ace Bryan Rivera to graduation we feel that it will be on the mound where Alonso is at its strongest. Key returners in seniors RHP Landon Nunez (6-0, 1.08 ERA, 28K’s) and RHP Vincent Antuna (3-3, 3.27 ERA in 20 appearances; Polk State commit) will set a great foundations for the Ravens. Alonso was dominant at home last year going 9-1, and took down Plant in the district final before dropping a 2-1, pitching gem in 10 innings to Durant in the first round of region play. Pitching and defense is the difference-maker in high school baseball and the Ravens are always a sound team with the glove. Our only questions heading into the season is will the bats keep pace with a talented pitching staff to stack up wins.

9. Newsome

Coach: Dick Rohrberg (10th season)

2023 Record: 16-10
Season Opener: Tuesday, vs Gaither, 7pm
Outlook: We’re not gonna mince words here: Newsome got hosed last season. The Wolves curb-stomped Winter Haven 11-0 in the district tournament, only to see the FHSAA’s power rankings leave Newsome out of the region tournament, while the Blue Devils got an invite only to be easily dispatched by Lakewood Ranch in the first round. The unpredictability of those rankings makes regular season W’s an even bigger priority. The Wolves need to turn close games their way this season (five of 10 losses last year were by two runs or less). A strong senior class led by Ryan Spitzer (.300, 15 runs; 1-1, 2.80 ERA on the mound; Florida Tech signee), Wade Walton (2-2, 2.36 ERA, 53K’s; High Point signee) and catcher Braden Moon (.371, 21 RBI; Florida Tech signee) has us listing Newsome just ahead of Bloomingdale and Strawberry Crest in our preseason rankings. Walton is the No. 1, but coach Dick Rohrberg was a bit non-committal beyond that on the mound, as the Wolves deal with some minor injuries on the bump. Three Polk County teams join the Wolves, Durant and Crest in 7A-District 6, but we expect this to be a battle between the 813 contingents come playoff time.

10. Bloomingdale

Coach: Kris Wilken (17th season)

2023 Record: 17-9 (region quarterfinalist)
Season Opener: Wednesday, at Strawberry Crest, 7pm
Outlook: The Bulls ripped off seven-straight at the start of ’23, taking advantage of a favorable early-season schedule. They added 10 more wins, claiming a district title in a 4-1 win against Lennard. However, the season ended on a flat note as the same Lennard squad ended Bloomingdale’s season in an 11-0 defeat. Bloomingdale returns three players who eclipsed 25 hits last season, led by senior outfielder and All-813Preps First Teamer Cooper Hinson (.481, 20 runs, 18 RBI, nine doubles; Marshall signee), senior outfielder and pitcher Dawson Rankin (.359, 12 runs, 11 RBI), and senior third baseman Pierce Collins (.321, 19 runs, nine doubles). Add in junior catcher Vinny Dinzeo, who posted a .298 average and drove in 11 runs in 2023, and offense should not be a problem for B’dale. On the mound, coach Kris Wilken kept his rotation a bit of a mystery with us, but key returnering senior righties Eli Davidson (5-2, 2.81 ERA), Johnny De La Rosa and Drew Williams give Bloomingdale a solid foundation on the mound. The Bulls kick off the season at Strawberry Crest on Wednesday, with a decisively more difficult early-season schedule. A tough pool of Plant, Jefferson and Wharton in the Saladino Tournament will be a good midseason test for the Bulls.

11. Strawberry Crest

Coach: Eric Beattie (15th season)

2023 Record: 17-8
Season Opener: Wednesday, vs Bloomingdale, 7pm
: Hitting being ahead of pitching seems to be a running theme for area teams this season. But the Chargers pitching staff has a key returner in senior Brayden DiCerb, who appeared in 17 games last year while posting a 1.73 ERA in 32 innings, with 30 strikeouts; and picked up transfer junior Chase Conti, whose breakout season at Armwood last spring saw him going 3-4, with a 2.06 ERA, and 50 strikeouts, all while raking at the plate to the tune of .370, with 31 runs and 23 RBI. Those offensive numbers should fit in nicely with a potent lineup led by senior UCF signee Akhil Nimmala (.338, 19 RBI, five homers), who will also get a shot on the mound this spring according to his coach; sophomore outfielder Reuben Vasquez hit .467 last year, scoring 26 runs, and driving in 10. Junior righty Brisen Tweedy is another arm head coach Eric Beattie said could be poised for a big year. Crest has five-straight seasons of at least 17 wins (not counting a 6-2 run in 2020’s shortened season), but like Newsome, were held out of the region tournament by the FHSAA mysterious “power” rankings. For those returners, we imagine (and hope) that has left a bad taste, and expect the Chargers to battle to put themselves in a no-question situation come selection time.

12. Lennard

Coach: Victor Martinez (Fourth season)

2023 Record: 18-10 (region semifinalist)
Season Opener: Tuesday, vs Alonso, 7pm
Outlook: Lennard started the season on a five-game win streak last year and mixed in another five-game streak later in the year, had some solid wins – splitting the season series with Plant and taking down Alonso in regular season action – and finally got its offense going against Bloomingdale, winning its third meeting in the region playoffs. The Longhorns had two senior pitchers (Jack Mueller and Carter Payne) who departed with a lot of innings eaten. But senior lefty Zack Bird (3-3, 1.53 ERA, 38K’s) is seasoned with 32 appearances on the mound in his three previous varsity seasons. Sophomore righty Talan Miranda (2.53 ERA, 13K’s) pitched in nine games last year and should see an increase in innings this spring. Offensively senior Mattie Counts (.310, 23 runs, 11 RBI; USF signee), catcher Mikie Locke (.293, 10 RBI, 10 runs), and sophomore Rowland Ruiz will pace the offense. A handful of transfers, led by outfielder Kevin Hunter and late-inning pitcher Landon Wilder, have bolstered a strong team down in Ruskin. We expect Lennard to creep into our Weekly Top 8 before too long, we just need to see who will step up to join Bird on the mound. A program-first district title is definitely within reach.

13. Steinbrenner

Coach: John Crumbley (15th season)

2023 Record: 16-11
Season Opener: Tuesday, at Armwood, 7pm
Outlook: After two sub-.500 seasons, the Warriors got back on the positive side of the ledger with a winning season last year, but missed a region playoff berth with a district semifinal exit. Two top hitters from last season – seniors Jorge Romero (.383, 22 runs, 18 RBI; Lynn University signee) and three-year starter Cayden Hessemyer (.329, 18 runs; FGCU signee) – return to lead the offense. Senior Dominic Sardegna (10 runs, 11 RBI), and juniors Kelton Meares and Austin Liss (11 runs, five RBI) will also be counted on for offensive production. Steinbrenner’s offense is likely a little ahead of its pitching, but seniors Carter Stern (15ip) and Hessemyer will start things off, and Meares (28ip, 23 K’s) will serve in relief. Four-of-six Class 7A-7 teams finished with winning records last season, and Sumner was just two games off that mark. This will once again be a black-and-blue district where we expect the Warriors to push last season’s state runner-up Plant and district champion Alonso all season.

14. Berkeley Prep

Coach: Richie Warren (10th season)

2023 Record: 21-9 (region semifinalist)
Season opener: Tuesday, vs Tampa Prep, 4:30p
: The Buccaneers claimed the 3A-District 5 title last season, only to fall to district rival Tampa Catholic in the region semis. Berkeley Prep had some significant seniors depart, however last year saw a lot of younger players get experience. Moving from the closer role to a starter last season, now-junior and All-813Preps First Teamer Rivers Kurland (7-2, 1.98 ERA, 93 K’s; .315 avg, 24 RBI), returns to lead the Buccaneers staff. An offense led senior Julius Pfau (.315, 27 runs, 16 RBI), Kurland and Joseph Troupe (.277, 23 RBI, 10 doubles, five homers) will cause problems for opposing pitchers. Sophomores Parker Mitzel and Ben O’Brien, and freshman Jett Walters all return with experience on the mound for the Bucs. The battles between Berkeley Prep and Tampa Catholic are always spirited, and we expect the Buccaneers to make another run to the region playoffs this May.

15. Wharton

Coach: Michael Burgess (Third season)

2023 Record: 11-14
Season opener: Tuesday, at Plant City, 7pm
Outlook: A bit of a struggle for a young Wildcats a year ago, but Wharton got a lot of experience for a large group of returners. The Wildcats took care of games they should have won, but found difficulty in matchups with some of the area’s more well-rounded teams. We look for last year’s knowledge-accrual to pay off this year. Top returning hitters – senior Jake Turer (.390, 11 RBI, nine doubles; University of Tampa signee) and junior Justis Meadows (.353, 23 rins, nine RBI, seven doubles, two homers) – anchor a potent lineup along with Drew Cobb (16 runs, eight RBI) and Jaylen Martin (20 runs, 10 RBI). Wharton’s pitching staff saw a lot of youth collect innings last year and two of those pitchers, now sophomores, lefty Chase Andress (2.97 ERA, 23 K’s) and righty Daniel Duno (2.23 ERA, 16 K’s in 15 2/3ip) start the season at the top of the rotation. Meadows and Turer have grown up in this program and the offense will be fierce, if the young pitchers improve on last year’s runs-allowed totals Wharton could be a dark horse in Class 6A-District 9 to challenge Gaither.