During a cold February, Hawaii was the only state that did not have snowfall within its borders. Even so, baseball season has arrived and high school teams across the country were preparing to work toward achieving their goals. Some teams have their district or conference title in mind. Others have their sights set on a state title. Some of those teams will also seek a national one.
Bellaire (Texas) High starts the season atop the Baseball America/National High School Baseball Coaches Association poll with seven returning starters, six of whom have signed to play for a Division I program after high school. However, the next three teams behind Bellaire in the preseason poll not only have high goals, but the necessary ingredients to make the season interesting and challenging for all contenders.
One Last Hurdle
In 2009, Miami’s Columbus High fell short of the 6-A title, losing to Tampa’s Alonso High in the finals. Columbus returns 12 players from that squad and adds shortstop Jesse Pintado, who comes over from Miami’s South Ridge High. The Explorers start the season at No. 2 and have eight seniors committed to D-I colleges. While nothing is guaranteed, this team is set up to achieve two of head coach Joe Weber’s goals and maybe a third.
“Every year we start off the year with the goal of winning the state championship,” Weber said. “Another goal we have is getting the kids onto the next level. With the talent you’d love to say one of your goals is to never lose a game, but it is baseball. Some day you’re gonna hit the ball hard, maybe right at people or lay an egg now and then. I know my goal is to not lose a game all year, but I know that’s probably an unrealistic goal.”
Going undefeated in Florida is a daunting task for any team, but Columbus faces a tougher road than most. Columbus is the only private school in the state that competes in the 6-A classification. The Explorers are members of a difficult district and have a schedule that includes strong non-district opponents.
|THE DECADE IN A BOX|
|The first decade of the 21st Century saw the explosion of the showcase system and a strong flow of talent come through the ranks of high school baseball. From Joe Mauer (2001) to Bryce Harper (2009), high school baseball attracted plenty of attention. Here’s our pick of the most important stories that emerged from the decade:|
|Controversial Juggernaut: With three potential first rounders in first baseman Casey Kotchman, righthander Ryan Dixon and shortstop Bryan Bass, Seminole (Fla.) High was an easy favorite to win the national title in 2001. The Warriors did so, but not without some drama. Bass had transferred but was ruled ineligible on a technicality. His appeal was denied and Seminole was forced to forfeit 10 games but allowed to participate in the state playoffs, which it won.|
|Year of the Homer: In 2002, Iowa prep catcher Jeff Clement set the new mark for career home runs with 75. In fact, four of the top five career leaders finished their careers in 2002. Micah Owings hit 69, while James Peterson from Iowa hit 68 and Kevin Bookout of Oklahoma finished with 65.|
|Texas One-Two: Falls High in Cypress, Texas had a future pro rotation with lefthander Scott Kazmir and righthander Clint Everts making starts. In 2001, Kazmir threw three consecutive no-hitters and added a fourth in a string of starts. However, in 2002, the formidable rotation proved to be mortal as Cy-Falls was bounced from the playoffs in the region quarterfinals.|
|Peabody’s Phenom, And His Fall: In 2003, Massachusetts started using wood bats in high school competition. Righthander Jeff Allison had no complaints. Facing wood bats as a senior, he didn’t allow a single earned run all season, earning High School Player of the Year honors. Allison’s pro career faltered, though, due to drug addiction.|
|Standing Alone: Chatsworth (Calif.) High would have a strong argument for program of the decade. From 2003-2005 the Chancellors won 54 consecutive games and earned back-to-back national titles, the only team to do so since Baseball America and the NHSBCA began ranking teams in 1992. Chatsworth also produced two first rounders in 2007 when the Royals took Mike Moustakas with the second overall pick and the Marlins took Matt Dominguez at No. 12.|
|Family Affair: Russell (Ala.) County baseball is synonymous with the Rasmus family. During Colby’s senior season in 2005, the team won a state and national title with father Tony at the helm and junior righthander Cory working on the mound. Lefthander Kasey Kiker a future first-round pick, was also on the team.|
|Short-Standing Mark: Bridging the 2002-2005 seasons, La Cueva High in Albuquerque set the mark at 70 in early April. However, the glory didn’t even last the season because Homer (Mich.) High broke the record a couple months later, carrying a 75-game winning streak into the state title game before losing.|
|Texas Whata-series: Whataburger Field, home of the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks, hosts region playoff games each season. In 2007, Corpus Christi powers Moody and Calallen faced off in an epic three-game series in which Moody eventually prevailed. The series drew a total of 18,000 spectators. In 2009, the story played out again. Moody once again advanced, but this time the three-game series drew an unprecedented 26,000 fans.|
|Prophetic Freshman: When first baseman Jeff Malm entered Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas as a freshman he predicted that the team was capable of winning a state title each year he was there. The Gaels did just that and won the national championship in 2009 with Malm as a senior leader. Malm collected his 277th career in the state championship, tying the national record.|
|Preps’ Midsummer Classics: This decade also saw the establishment of two premier all-star games, featuring the best rising seniors in the country. In 2003, the first Aflac All-America Game was played in Fort Myers, Fla. The event has been hosted at different sites, including Dodger Stadium in 2008 and Petco Park in 2009. The Under Armour All-America Game (Powered by Baseball Factory), began as the Cape Cod Classic and shifted to Wrigley Field in 2008. Both events have featured numerous players that went to be first round draft picks and major leaguers.|
“It’s been very challenging,” Weber said. “Down here in Florida some of the public schools have as many as five, six thousand students in it. They’re like small cities. Certainly from 6,000 kids you should be able to find nine that can play.”
Tough schedules like Columbus’ make it difficult to keep the number in the loss column low. The key to doing so is having pitching depth, which Columbus has. A team’s top pitchers are typically reserved for district contests, leaving non-district games to either the unexperienced or question marks. Columbus has twin aces—Weber ranks them No. 1 and 1A—in righthander Andres Perez Lobo and lefthander Andy Suarez, plus depth. It also offers Weber the luxury of keeping his guys fresh.
“To have five guys who can touch 90 and above, it’s a definite plus,” he said. “And the fact that there are so many of them and they are so good, keeps you from burning someone out. You’re not asking a guy to go out there and get a complete game.”
The quintet includes Lobo, Suarez, Pintado, and righthanders Andres Gracia and Javier Salas. Weber has been at Columbus for 15 years and he says he’s never had a staff like this. He can only hope that it will help achieve the program’s goals for 2010.
Positioned To Win
Checking in as the preseason No. 3 team is Edison High of Huntington Beach, Calif. The Chargers don’t have a state title in their sights as California doesn’t hold a state tournament. Rather, the state is split up into sections. A section championship in the Golden State is the goal for any team. Edison lost in the Southern Section finals to Capistrano Valley High in 2009, but look to return this season and next thanks to a loaded junior class.
Outfielder Eric Snyder and lefthander Henry Owens are prospects for the 2011 draft and easily make Edison a team to watch in 2010 on their own. But in January, the Chargers added shortstop Christian Lopes as well as his younger brother, second baseman Timmy, whose family moved from Valencia to Huntington Beach. That gives Edison a dynamic trio—Snyder, Owens and the older Lopes—that can rack up wins for the next two seasons. However, the Chargers have targets on their backs and won’t be able to surprise anybody this season.
“It’s a different challenge for me,” head coach Steve Lambright said. “I’ve always gotten my ballclub in under the radar. This year is different. We’re expected to win. We’ve gotta put it all together on the field. If I can put the right guys in the right place and give them direction like I’ve been doing, then I think everything will fall into place.”
Lambright and his team felt it would be in the hunt for a title this season even before Lopes transferred. Snyder and Owens are good friends, not to mention talented ballplayers. Snyder is an electric player who excels in all aspects of the game. He provides good defense in center with his speed and a good arm, can terrorize opponents on the basepaths and brings a productive bat to the plate. Owens sets the tone on the mound.
“He’s obviously an ace and what you expect from an ace is to go out and dominate,” Lambright said. “He is human, he’s not a robot. He’s gonna get hit once in a while. But he’s going to go up on the mound and it’s going to bring a sense of confidence to the ballclub.”
The addition of Lopes brings the offense to another level as well as the defense, but chemistry at the high school level is important. Snyder, Owens and Lopes are no strangers to each other or the showcase circuit. They share camaraderie and experience that could do wonders for the team.
“It’s huge, the chemistry of the team,” Lambright added. “What you hope is that the experience they’ve had spreads throughout the whole team.”
Should all the parts work together, the Chargers have the ingredients for a two-year run of dominance.
New Coach, Same Tradition
In Tennessee, Tommy Pharr built a winning tradition at Knoxville’s Farragut High. He spent 12 seasons as the head coach, going 436-91 and winning five state titles. But he’s moved on to the Christian Academy of Knoxville, leaving the job in the hands of a former player and assistant coach, Matt Buckner.
Buckner played for Pharr at Monterey (Tenn.) High from 1993-1994. He then joined Pharr as an assistant at Farragut in 2001 and they won a state title together in 2003. In 2004, Buckner took the head coaching position at nearby Bearden. Now he’s returned to a program rich with tradition and talent, but knows that he has his work cut out for him.
“It’s a neat thing for me and my family,” Buckner said. “Obviously there’s pressure with the position. There’s a high expectation. It’s a great place with good kids and a great facility. It has a tradition that very few have.”
The Admirals lost four key players to graduation, but return enough talent to warrant their No. 4 preseason ranking and the expectation that they’ll win a lot. Junior Nicky Delmonico will move to shortstop this season to replace Curt Powell, who hit .504 with eight home runs in 2009. Delmonico, the son of former Tennessee coach Rod, hit .465 last season with 12 homers. Junior lefthander Philip Pfiefer has gone 25-5, 1.35 in the last two seasons and will likely be looked upon to fill the hole left by lefthander Jordan Cooper, now at Ole Miss. Righthander Nick Williams, who went 6-0, 0.82 in 43 innings last season, will also have a big role on the pitching staff. Buckner likes his one-two punch.
“I feel like we’re going to have a good pitching staff,” he said. “I feel confident in our first guys. After that we have some talent, but we have to have some guys develop and get some game time.”
Expectations are high for Buckner and the Admirals, as well as the competition. They’ll be traveling to Orlando for a spring break tournament that consists of nine Florida teams. They’ll also have to face Johnson City’s Science Hill High, which has lefthander Daniel Norris, arguably the top pitching prospect for 2011.
Buckner is excited for his team and the opportunity that’s been laid out for him. He admired Pharr’s intensity and work ethic and will look to keep the winning tradition going.