In high school baseball, most competitive teams will be fortunate enough to have a star or two, with a few college-bound players and maybe some promising underclassmen. But things are a little different at Archbishop McCarthy High (Southwest Ranches, Fla.). The Mavericks aren't a normal high school program.
The 2011 national champions began the season ranked as the No. 3 team in the nation, poised for another run at the 6A Florida state championship, which would be McCarthy's seventh state championship in eight years.
Head coach Rich Bielski has a seasoned group of seniors, led by second-team All-American Alex Toral, one of the nation's top power hitters, and third-team All-American Joe Perez, a two-way talent who offers plus power, a mid-90s fastball and a plus slider. The Mavericks have several players who could go on to play professionally, and they have a total of 13 players committed to play college baseball. That group of seniors has carried the program for several years.
"This senior group is most definitely special," Bielski said. "Most of them have been on varsity since their sophomore year, and as a coaching staff we recognized at that time that this was going to be a special class. I was telling people at that time, 'If you're going to get us, you better get us now because these 10th graders are amazing.'"
But no one in Florida was able to take advantage of McCarthy's youth. In 2015, the Mavericks rolled through powerhouse Florida programs such as Merritt Island and Mosley en route to a state title. They did it again in 2016, going 29-2 and taking a 10-4 victory over Mosley to win cap off another magical championship run.
"They're seasoned. They're battle-tested," Bielski said of his seniors. "They've been through the fire. They're ready for a great year this year."
While many of those seniors ascended to the varsity level as sophomores, two-time Under Armour All-American Toral accomplished that feat as a freshman in 2014. That year, Toral joined a prolific group of upperclassmen that included Orioles second-round pick Brian Gonzalez and Michael Gigliotti, now a first-team college Preseason All-American and a star at Lipscomb. Those upperclassmen welcomed Toral with open arms, and Toral has carried the torch for the Mavericks ever since.
"Alex is someone that everyone looks up to. He is most definitely our captain, our leader," Bielski said. "He leads by example. He's got a great attitude. He's aggressive, extremely competitive. From a coaching standpoint, what's most exciting about him is that he makes everyone around him better."
Toral, a Miami recruit, is coming off a strong junior year in which he batted .310 and reached base at a .558 clip. Scouts in the area have noted that he's coming out this spring looking more physically defined.
Gonzalez, a 21-year-old lefthander who is ticketed for high Class A in 2017, was there to show Toral the ropes in 2014.
"He pretty much took me under his wings," Toral said of his relationship with Gonzalez. "That's something that really helped me. As a leader now, feeding off of him and Gigliotti and Eddie Silva, those guys who lead the team my freshman year, it was a true blessing."
With all of the tradition and the top prospects drawing flocks of scouts to every game, it would be understandable for the players to feel pressure, but Toral says the group is relaxed and focused on having fun.
"I don't think there's one player on our team that feels any kind of pressure right now," Toral said. "I think we're just trying to soak it all in and have as much fun as we can senior year. We're playing the game we all love and we just go out there and try to have fun. We compete with each other like we're competing against another team. It makes us better. When we're playing intrasquads, we know we're playing against some of the best players in the country and there's no pressure situation for us right now. We're playing baseball and we're having fun doing it."
The Mavericks' blend of talent, experience and team chemistry is unique. There are only a few teams in the nation that could measure up with McCarthy, but their schedule is filled with many of those teams.
"I have never seen a high school schedule like the one we have this year," Bielski said. Pitching coach Alex Fernandez, who pitched for a decade in the big leagues for the White Sox and Marlins, built the schedule. McCarthy will face a who's who of south Florida powers, including American Heritage, Westminster Christian, Flanagan and Gulliver Prep. As if that weren't already enough of a challenge, McCarthy will take a shot at a de facto national championship at the National High School Invitational in late March.
"It's ridiculous. I do not expect us to run through it undefeated," Bielski said. "Last year we only had two losses and I thought that was a tough schedule. And somehow Alex found a way to take it to another level."
McCarthy could take a few hits over the course of the season, but the schedule is built for development. While the Mavericks know that a state championship can't be won in February, they know that challenging themselves will allow them to be the best they can during the regular season and beyond.
"Alex has put us up against the very best that he could possibly find to continually test us and challenge us so that come playoff time we'll be ready again," Bielski added.
While this year's club may be one of the best in school history, the program is in good hands going forward. The coaching staff brings big league playing experience to the table, and former players are constantly stopping by in the offseason to work out and share their wisdom with the next generation. Furthermore, this year's senior class is looking out for the underclassmen and teaching them, just as Gonzalez and Gigliotti's class did three years ago.
"I think the program is going to stay completely strong," Toral said "I actually have no doubt about it that the program is going to keep going on and winning state championships and having good playoff runs and having good records year in and year out."
Freshman Albert Hernandez has an electric arm and has already touched the low 90s with his fastball. Sophomores Yordani Carmona and Michael Machin also stand out as future leaders in the program.
"I think that us as seniors have taken the younger guys under our wings and shown them the ropes and given them the winning formula," Toral said. "They have enough talent and they'll have enough experience after this year to go on and have a great year next year."
"I believe they're going to be just as special as us. There's no doubt in my mind that they will take the program and keep it going."