At long last, the 2020 high school baseball season started this week.
Pound for pound, arguably no part of Florida was as talented, competitive or successful on the baseball field in 2019 than the greater Plant City area.
With Plant City and Strawberry Crest facing each other in the Class 8A state championship game and Durant winning 18 games, last year was one wild ride on the diamond. It’s also going to be a hard act to follow, but all three teams have their ears pinned back and are ready to prove themselves in 2020.
If anyone’s going to have the hardest time replicating 2019’s success, it’s the defending state champs.
That’s not a slight against the Raiders at all — it’s just that going 30-2 in a regular season and winning district, regional and state championships in the same postseason is an extremely difficult task. And every athlete and coach alive knows the only thing harder than winning a title is defending it.
“Last year, I think we hid a little bit and then, all of a sudden, we popped up on the radar,” head coach Mike Fryrear said.
Luckily for Plant City, this team is still very good on paper. Even though graduation took away key players like two-way star Parker Messick, veteran catcher Hunter Emerine and Cade Shissler’s reliable bat, plenty of Raiders who were crucial to the 2019 team’s success are back.
Pitcher Jarod Wingo, who got the win in the state title game and had a team-best 0.44 ERA on the mound last season, is the new ace. Tyler Dowdy, who went 6-1 on the mound in 2019 and was one of the most valuable players in the state series, is back for one more year and is now throwing in the 80s. Speedster Mario Williams, whose base running and defense has been crucial to PCHS, gets two more seasons. Other key returners include 2019 batting average leader Cole Cothren (.467 in 90 at-bats), starting outfielder Chris Rodriguez and designated hitter Ryan Robinson.
“People thought we lost stuff, but no,” Fryrear said. “We just reloaded.”
The Raiders may not have quite as many pure power hitters rostered as last season, but this team is still versatile enough pitching, hitting, fielding and running the bases to match up well with just about anyone. Plant City looks to be a tough out for any team and will likely make another serious postseason run in 2020.
No team was hit harder by graduation than the state runner-up, which lost a strong core of seven seniors that set the tone for the 2019 season on both offense and defense.
Crest fans shouldn’t be worried about a major regression, though. Head coach Eric Beattie’s 2020 group still checks several boxes that have always been crucial to the program’s success: versatility, coachability and competitiveness.
“I think we’re gonna pitch it well,” Beattie said. “We should throw a lot of strikes. Our defense should be very good. We have a very competitive group. They love competition. We’re just gonna have to execute and be very disciplined offensively.”
This Chargers team, Beattie said, is “full of utility players” that can make managing any game much easier. Upperclassmen Tyson Hardin, Colby Fanning and Matt Smith will bring valuable experience all over the field and on the mound, and Beattie’s also excited to see what freshmen Zack Lester and Zack Redner can do in utility roles. Alex Mussenden, who can burn up the basepaths, is the leadoff hitter to start the season and Eli Garner, who pitched in the state championship game, is also returning in a major role. This year will also be big for righty pitcher Bryan Boully, who threw in 11 innings in 2019 but will now become one of Crest’s workhorses on the mound. Beattie said he has the potential to be “dominant,” which should excite any fans worried about losing pitchers like Alex Marshall and Kade Manderscheid.
Despite losing so much talent, Crest is not a team to be taken lightly and can still outwork and outsmart you all the way to the wins column. To stay focused, Beattie is promoting “HIPP” within the program — developing the Human first, making a positive Impact and focusing on Preparation in the class and on the field every day for the best possible Performance.
“That’s kind of our route to determine the success we have this year,” Beattie said. “If those things are in place, I know that it’s gonna be a great year and we’re probably gonna win a lot of games.”
Don’t sleep on Durant this season.
The Cougars are a junior-heavy squad in 2020. Fourteen of the 24 rostered players are in 11th grade and head coach Butch Valdes is confident in their ability to step into bigger roles, especially after the team’s preseason wins over King and Bloomingdale.
That’s going to be especially important on the mound now that Durant needs some of them to fill several pitching roles affected by graduation. Sean Hermann, who led the team with 55 strikeouts in 39 innings pitched, got plenty of work in 2019 and will keep at it this season. Alex Canney, who struck out 26 batters in 18.2 innings pitched last year, and Esteban Tavarez, who appeared in four games last year and started one, will also be heavily relied on.
Durant was dealt a major blow this offseason when a knee injury ended 2019 batting leader Ahmad Fitts’ senior season before it began, but Valdes said senior Coleton Brogden and junior Dean Hotz, who transferred to Durant from Bell Creek Academy, have been swinging the bats well. Brogden hit .273 last season but his 13 RBI (with 12 hits) ranked second only to Fitts’ 19 RBI among all Cougars.
Pitching may be this team’s greatest tangible strength right now, but Valdes said the intangibles are also there. Calling this team one of the strongest in years as far as unity goes, the coach said the Cougars are all-in together and know they have to lift each other up to have the best season possible.
“It’s everybody working together,” Valdes said. “We’re not running off of that one big name. But it’s nice because we’re junior-heavy, so the next couple years look pretty positive. It’s a good group. I really like it. It’s close-knit, like a big family.”
The FHSAA has realigned all of the baseball districts and all three area teams have been affected.
While there is still a crosstown rivalry series with district seeding stakes, it’s no longer Durant-Plant City games. The Cougars are now in 7A-District 8 with Riverview, Lakewood Ranch, Lennard, Newsome and Riverview Sarasota. Newsome, Lakewood Ranch and Lennard each made it to regionals last season, so this could shape up to be one of the toughest districts in the state for any team to win.
Plant City and Strawberry Crest are now in 6A-District 8 and will have to tangle with Leto, Tampa Bay Tech and Armwood. Leto’s reputation as one of the best teams in the Tampa Bay area is well-deserved, and Armwood is coming off of a 2019 campaign that saw the Hawks make huge improvements on offense and defense while losing only five players to graduation.
The FHSAA’s new power ranking system has made its way to the baseball field just in time for 2020.
So, the days of finishing as district runner-up and being guaranteed a road game in the regional quarterfinals are gone. At-large bids and seeding will be determined by the FHSAA by way of MaxPreps’ ranking system, which considers both regular season and district tournament play for each team as well as strength of schedules when formulating a score to order them by. With the old district runner-up crutch now yanked out of the picture, losses just got far more stressful.
UPCOMING GAMES TO WATCH
If you’re a Durant fan, buckle up: the Cougars are hitting the road for four of their next six games before the Saladino Tournament starts March 14. Newsome (Feb. 27) and Bloomingdale (March 5) will play Durant tough at Cougar Path, but anyone willing to travel will see top competition at Sickles (tonight), Lennard (Feb. 25), Riverview (March 3) and Plant City (March 10).
If you’re a Plant City fan, get ready for two rematches of the 2019 district championship game in 18 days. The Raiders travel to Bloomingdale tonight and will host the Bulls March 9. You also won’t want to miss the Feb. 25 state championship rematch against Crest at 1 Raider Place, Leto coming March 3 and the aforementioned Durant game March 10.
If you’re a Crest fan, you’ll definitely want to go to PCHS next week. But you should also consider making plans to be in Dover on March 7 for the Sickles game. And if you’re looking for a blast from the past, games against former district rivals Freedom (at home Feb. 28) and Wiregrass Ranch (in Wesley Chapel March 5) are also coming soon.
Other than the March 7 Sickles-Strawberry Crest game, which starts at 10 a.m., all aforementioned games are scheduled to start at 7 p.m.
SALADINO AT 40
The 40th annual Saladino Tournament will have a new format this year, splitting the action up into two divisions (Gold and Silver) as a way to adapt to the FHSAA’s new ranking system.
Teams that lose a game in either division will be sent to the consolation bracket to fight for third place. Fans of area teams need only worry about the Gold division, which includes Durant, Plant City and Crest. With Jesuit, Bloomingdale, Plant, Leto, Riverview, Newsome, Sickles, Wharton, Lennard, Steinbrenner, Alonso, Jefferson and Gaither joining the local schools, that division looks like a baseball fan’s dream and will crown a champion at 8 p.m. March 18 at Brandon High School.