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Friday, Mar 27, 2015

County faces possible changing of guard


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For the past four years, Hernando and Springstead have reigned supreme over the county's baseball scene.

The Leopards have had a particularly stellar run during that span, reaching at least the Elite Eight in each of those seasons.

In 2013, the Eagles joined them in advancing to the regional finals for the first time.

But graduation took a serious toll on both clubs, a development that may level the playing field in the local ranks.

Several coaches pointed to Central as a team on the rise, which makes sense considering the Bears (10-15 in 2013) return all four of their All-County selections: first baseman/pitcher Thomas Sorrentino, third baseman Scott Dwyer, left fielder C.J. Martinez and southpaw pitching ace Trevor McKenna.

Not that Central head coach Al Sorrentino is buying into the concept that Hernando won't be a factor, especially with the Leopards joining them in the realigned Class 5A, District 7.

"Despite what everyone may think, never discount Hernando," Coach Sorrentino said. "If they aren't doing well at the beginning of the year, they'll still be there at the end."

A season ago, Central started 7-8 sophomores on a regular basis, and dropped seven games by one run and three others by two.

"All those sophomores, some with two years of varsity experience and most with one, with the natural progression of things they can't help but be better than last year," Sorrentino said. "Even though we were young last year, we could throw strikes and field the ball. This year I think the big difference is we're swinging the bats better."

Much of it starts with the senior McKenna, who recently signed with Lake Sumter State College. As a junior he went 3-6 with a 3.56 ERA, striking out 56 batters across 55 innings and tossing a no-hitter against Springstead.

Sorrentino said McKenna, who hit .274 with eight runs batted in last year, has made such tremendous strides at the plate that he'll also hit in the middle of the order.

Thomas Sorrentino (.424, 16 RBI in 2013), Dwyer (.354, 22 RBI) and Martinez (.338, 17 RBI) should also pace the offense, and senior catcher Hank Shiver figures to play a prominent role behind the plate.

Behind McKenna, senior Grayson Brown as well as juniors Dante Hamilton and the lefty Thomas Sorrentino lead what Coach Sorrentino believes is a 10-deep pitching staff.

"We want to make the (regional) playoffs," Coach Sorrentino said. "Whether that means we're 0-for-the-district and get into the district final or we're the number one seed and get in the district final, it doesn't matter to me. Obviously you want to win games, but the goal is to make the playoffs."

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Hernando went 24-6 in 2013 and won the 5A-7 crown, their third in four years. Head coach Tim Sims joined the late Tom Varn in the county's 300-win club last season, and returns for his 19th year at the helm overall.

However, eight starters graduated, including the past two season's Hernando Today Players of the Year, shortstop Christian Arroyo and pitcher/outfielder Brandon Lawson.

Arroyo ended becoming the county's first player to go in the first round of the Major League Baseball June Amateur Draft, to the San Francisco Giants, while Lawson is now playing for USF.

Left behind are two seniors, pitcher/third baseman Kyle Kilbourne and catcher Austin Treverton, who saw at least part-time action the previous season.

The righty Kilbourne is the most experienced returning pitcher, having gone 3-3 with a 3.42 ERA as a junior.

"When you coach long enough in baseball, you're going to have transitions," Sims said. "You don't expect to have a nine-person senior class like last year, but we got them.

"We're just going out there and making sure everyone is going in the right spot defensively, mixing and matching everything.

"We've had good days and bad days with this type of team. You expect that in the first half. But we'll see. They like playing baseball. They get after it pretty well in practice. They like to compete. They're not going to be intimidated. It's a scrappy, get-after-it-type group."

Sims said he's excited about the prospects of 5A-7, which also includes Nature Coast and Weeki Wachee as well as Pasco, Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills.

The Pirates have missed regionals just once in the past 13 seasons, and their former coach Ricky Giles is now guiding Zephyrhills.

Wesley Chapel advanced to regionals four times since 2008 under head coach Chuck Yingling, who stepped down after last season, replaced by another veteran, Steve Mumaw.

"Our expectations will be every game, go out there and make teams beat us," Sims said. "If we have that approach, the sky's the limit."

As for Springstead (18-9 in 2013), first baseman/pitcher Brandon Brosher has taken his power bat and arm to the pros after getting drafted by the New York Mets.

The Eagles additionally lost shortstop/pitcher Ryan Nicoll to graduation, leaving them without two of the county's finest all-around players the past few years, and another repeat All-County selection, utility infielder Nic Pasarela.

Senior Kyle Cottilletta, having earned an All-County nod in right field hitting .304 with 18 RBI, 23 runs scored and nine steals out of the leadoff spot, does return.

Other returning seniors such as center fielder Will Pagan and second baseman Blake Laferty, plus junior Kyle Stein, the potential number one starter, and a slew of younger players has second-year head coach Jim Diven feeling optimistic.

"One thing we definitely do have on this team is speed," Diven said. "I guarantee there is no team faster. Our six outfielders are just speed demons.

"We're stronger than I thought we were going to be, actually. I knew we were going to be fast, but a lot of these kids have matured. I think we'll have a pretty good team."

Diven isn't thrilled with the setup of the Eagles' new district, 6A-10, featuring Pasco County-based Mitchell and Pinellas County schools St. Petersburg-Dixie Hollins, Largo and Seminole-Osceola.

Though only Largo failed to make regionals a year ago out of that group, Diven's primary beef is with the travel, Springstead being by far the district's northern-most team.

Regardless, Diven would love to see the Eagles duplicate what turned out to be their most successful season, in which they captured a district title and their first two regional wins.

"It's hard for me to even come up with expectations at this point in time," Diven said. "Knowing last year was the best year Springstead ever had and losing Brandon Brosher and Ryan Nicoll, it's hard to replace a couple guys like that.

"But if these guys jell, we're going to give it a run. We're going to be hard to deal with."

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With Mike Ellison taking over at Nature Coast, this marks the sixth time in seven seasons the Sharks (12-14 in 2013) have a different headman than the previous year.

Ellison, having served as a head coach at Hernando, Hernando Christian Academy and Central, is no stranger in these parts, and inherits a team having endured four straight losing campaigns.

"The kids are learning real well. At this stage that's key," Ellison said. "It's going to be a typical team for me. We're going to struggle in the beginning, possibly. As we get to the second half, they'll figure out how to be game-ready. I'm looking for a better second half than first half.

"The only expectations I have is for them to work hard and try to perform their best."

Junior Vito Tambasco Jr., who hit .451 with 11 extra-base hits, 14 RBI, 22 runs scored and 12 steals, and went 5-6 with a 3.48 ERA, striking out 68 in 50.1 innings as a sophomore, is back in the fold.

The Sharks also have Flagler signee Chris Lake, a senior right-hander who last year went 2-3 with a 4.20 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 33.1 innings, while hitting .347 with six doubles and a home run, driving in 13 runs and scoring 20 in 72 at-bats.

Senior Matt Tormey joins them as Nature Coast's top three on the mound.

"This will be my first year with these guys and their first year with me," Ellison said. "What I look for is to execute. If they don't execute, we don't have a chance. And how long is takes them to execute will determine how far we go."

Weeki Wachee has gone 2-43 over its first two varsity seasons, but head coach Patrick McHugh, as well as other coaches, believe the Hornets should be improved.

"I still see us as a young team," McHugh said. "It'll be a year where we're really learning how to win. Hopefully we can do that and build upon that for the next couple of years. We're setting up nicely for the next few years to really be competitive."

McHugh pointed to sophomores Aaron Arnold and Zach Peek to anchor an improved pitching staff despite the loss of ace Dustin Bauer to graduation.

Junior shortstop C.J. Flaherty and senior catcher Josh Rivera are expected to pace the offense.

"We're still probably in the bottom half (of the district)," McHugh said. "But if things go our way, I can see us right around the middle of the pack."

Hernando Christian Academy is set to compete as an independent once again. Head coach Tony Alvarez did return calls seeking comment.

(352) 544-5288

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