Palm Beach High School Baseball
Miami Marlins

Atlantic Looks to Build Off Last Year In 7A-13

Big things are expected from a healthy Michael Buckley, right, at Atlantic.

Defending district champion Atlantic lost some key members from last year’s district championship team, but the Eagles don’t look at individuals, but rather the team as a whole. That’s the value Mananger Steve Wilson tries to instill.
Though the team is missing players such as Joey Ohannesian and Jarren Pinkney, the Eagles are determined to build off of last year’s surprising late run that included upsets over West Boca and Dwyer that gave them the district title.

Dwyer will be riding the pitching of senior ace Tom Szapucki and Tyler Ahearn as it looks to be a contender in the district.

West Boca is under new leadership with Nathan Underwood at the helm in place of Nick Siano, and the Bulls will have a young lineup as they deal with the loss of several players to graduation.

Atlantic
2014 Record: 14-15-1
Manager: Steve Wilson
Coaching Staff: Rick Swearingen (Pitching),Will Durgin, John Wiggelsworth
Key Returners: Stefan Leclerc, Brach Thomas, Michael Buckley, Nicholas Cortese, Duane Cyr, Alex Cordes
Newcomers: Jared Liza
Team Strengths: Defense

Stefan Leclerc is the staff ace and team leader for the Eagles

Sometimes, quality is more important than quantity. Such might be the case for the 2015 Atlantic Eagles.

They graduated only four members of last year’s district championship team, but taken together, those four players equal more than the sum of their parts.

First, there is team captain Joey Ohannesian, who took with a him a career .361/.431/.438 batting line. He was the lone remaining member of the 2012 squad that made it all the way to the state semifinals, and that kind of experience and production is not easily replaced.

Next comes the team’s emotional leader, Jarren Pinkney, who possessed the kind of raw power that Manager Steve Wilson says you rarely see at the high school level. You need to look no further than his seven home runs and 41 RBIs to find proof of that. Both were tops in Palm Beach County.

Then there is lefty hurler George Engroff and role playing outfielder Chris Ferguson. Engroff tossed 43 1/3 innings last season while also posting a .423 OBP and Ferguson chipped in with a .333 batting average of his own.

Considering the loss of these four players, one might get the impression that the Eagles are in store for a down year. On the contrary, the future looks bright for Atlantic. Just ask Stefan Leclerc, the team’s ace who struck out a district-leading 59 batters last season.

“Looking great. I think we look really good,” Leclerc beamed when asked about this season’s club. “We’re going to be young, but I think we’re going to be good.”

Looking at the roster, he has good reason to be optimistic. Despite losing the aforementioned stars, the team returns a solid nucleus of experienced players who have learned how to win the hard way.

Last year, the Eagles suffered a disastrous 0-6-1 start before rebounding to finish 14-15-1 and earn the fourth seed in the highly competitive and newly formed district 7A-13. From there, they went on a tear, upsetting West Boca and Dwyer en route to the district title. Their manager believes the adversity from last season made them a better team.

“They learned that they can win when they fall behind,” Wilson said. “They can come back on people. They learned how to approach it with a winning attitude.”

Alex Cordes looks to build off of a strong sophomore campaign.

Many of the players responsible for that late season surge are back with the team for another go-round. Alex Cordes, Duane Cyr and Luis Beltran are all starters from last year’s club who are returning for just their junior season. Add to that mix seniors Brach Thomas and Nicholas Cortese, both of whom were also starters in 2014, plus Michael Buckley, who was injured much of last year but is expected to make significant contributions this season, and you begin to see why Leclerc is so excited about the team’s prospects.

One particular bright spot is Cordes, the Eagle’s center fielder and lead-off man who came on strong as the season progressed and ended up leading the district by hitting .444.

“He kind of just slowly grew into his role and then he became a very good lead-off hitter,” Wilson said about Cordes. “He set the table for us and we’re looking for him to do the same thing this year.”

Cordes believes that he will do that and more.

“I’m hoping to hit for a little bit more power this year,” Cordes said. “And steal a few more bases. I’m trying to build on that. It’s never enough.”

Joining him in the outfield is Cortese, who also proved to be a difficult out for opponents, batting .375 in the campaign.

Both are above average fielders and a good reason that Wilson thinks defense will be the team’s strong suite this year.

“How we’re going to win is with our defense and with our pitchers holding them down,” said Wilson. “That’s what we’re going to try to do.”

Just how well that strategy works out will depend a lot on Leclerc. A gutsy performer, he will be counted on to shoulder the load while Wilson searches for someone to replace Engroff.

“I’m ready for it,” Leclerc said when asked about the challenge. “I had a good summer, I worked hard in the fall and I think we’re going to have a better defense than last year.”

His manager shares his confidence.

“Stefan is our number one pitcher and he will be our number one pitcher again this year,” Wilson said. “He leads the staff and they do the right thing by following in what he does.”

Leclerc relishes the leadership role and learned a lot from playing with Pinkney and Ohannesian. He wants to pass that knowledge and the experience of playoff baseball along to the younger players on the team.

“As a team last year, we had tons of passion,” Leclerc said. “Every single game we went 100 percent and Jarren was probably the biggest leader in that. I just hope the kids understand how much fun it is when you get into districts and all that. It’s ridiculously fun and I hope they get that.”

While the Eagles look to be built for another run deep into the playoffs, nothing is guaranteed in baseball. Their district is strong and Wilson know that all the talent in the world wont mean a thing if they do not play as a team.

His approach to managing has always revolved around team work and effort and he wants his players to realize that as long as they give their all and play their best, they will never have anything to be ashamed of, win or lose. He knows that guys like Pinkney and Ohannesian, Engroff and Ferguson, no matter how good or productive, can never equal the sum of a team that plays together and for each other.

“For us to win,” said Wilson, “the whole team has to pull together and that’s what we strive for.”

Dwyer
2014 Record: Frank Torre
Manager: 19-8

Last year was a historic year for Dwyer High School but it didn’t start out that way. After starting the season by dropping their first two, the Panthers won their next seven games and nine of their next 10. That momentum carried them for most of the season, culminating with their first ever trip to the regional finals. While they lost to American in that game 1-0, it was the farthest the Dwyer Panther program had ever gone in the postseason.

“We made it to the regional final which is the farthest Dwyer baseball had ever gone which was a real good step for us,” sixth year Dwyer manager Frank Torre said.

Not only did the program advance to the regional finals for the first time in program history, they did it just one year removed from missing the playoffs all together after an injury laden 2013, something that Torre said made it even more special.

“It was huge,” Torre said. “We probably weren’t as on the field physically talented last year but we had a great group of guys and they all improved throughout the year. It was real important to get back into the playoffs because we went in 2012 and missed it in 2013 so it was important to get back last year.”

It wasn’t just a matter of getting back either for the program it was getting over that hump that they had yet to get over.

“It was also important to get over that hump. We have been to the regional semi-finals but had not won that game so to get to that regional final was a big step.”

The focus now turns to new goals for this team in 2015. Dwyer will look to win the district title and get back to the regional finals and advance to the state championship for the first time but will have to do that without some of their top offensive talent from a year ago. Gone from last year’s team is Brian Brooker, Shane Olive, and Duke Stunkel, all who hit over .300 during the 2014 season. As a result, they will need some of the younger bats who will now be inserted in the starting lineup to step up.

“We lost our two through five hitters, so we definitely lost the main part of our offense,” Torre said. “All our pitchers are back and are improved even more so that’s a good thing. The key is going to be for our sophomores to step it up. We have a bunch of sophomores that are going to be in the starting lineup.”

As a result of their starting lineup being so young, there will be situations where some of the younger guys will have to learn on the job, something Torre knows that as long as they take it well and learn from it, won’t be too big of an issue hopefully.

“Our offense is very young, but the kids have the ability,” Torre said. “They just need to keep progressing as the year goes on and take their lumps and keep fighting. If they do all that by the end of they year, I think we will be a pretty good offensive team.”

One of those keys on offense to last year’s run that Dwyer will want to try to repeat this year is their knack for winning close games.

“We got that big hit when we needed it as well as two out hits. That was a huge thing we did well last year,” Torre said. “That wins and loses you games is getting those two out hits and we got so many of them throughout the year and won a lot of 3-2 and 4-3 games. That was a big difference from 2013 to last year.”

In order to do that, they will have to rely on their pitching as well. The majority of last year’s rotation will return for the Panthers this year, lead by senior ace Tom Szapucki and now sophomore Tyler Ahearn.

“Tyler Ahearn started that regional final game last year as a freshman,” Torre said. “He’s an FSU commit and a top guy. We are really looking for him to step up on the mound and play right field when he isn’t pitching. He will be a two way guy.”

Torre also knows that having Szapucki will be a huge asset this year.

“It’s Tom’s show this year. He’s the ace and to just have a guy like that who you know that if he’s on on a certain day he can completely shut down most teams in the state is a huge thing.”

Also a huge advantage to this team in it’s pursuit of a district title is the fact that they are no longer the new team in the district. This will now be the second year in 7A-10 and the Panthers now have a better idea of what to expect from their new district foes. The familiarity though doesn’t mean that they will have a cakewalk to that district crown though as Torre knows he has a tough slate ahead.

“There are some good teams. Atlantic and Royal Palm are both tough. West Boca lost some guys but they always have a good team and Forest Hill is going to be much improved. We will have to play well to win this district. Nobody is just going to hand it to us. We are going to have to play good baseball against this good competition.”

Forest Hill
2014 Record:6-19
Manager: Russ Milliken
Coaching Staff: Renee Rosario, Johnny Perez
Key Returners: Manny Bejerano, Mike Entenza, Corey Mahoney, Carlos Bass, Kylan Barnett, Jorge Hernando, Raymond Sanchez
Newcomers: Yadian Barcelo, Jose Torres, Alex Molliner, Josh Kattinger, Lazaro Serrano
Team Strengths: Defense, Offense

Lazaro Serrano brings a solid bat to the Falcon’s lineup.

If the 2014 season was a learning experience for a young Falcons team, then 2015 will be a test to see what they have taken away from that enterprise and just how well they have adjusted. The team will have seven seniors on it’s roster as compared to just one a year ago and the hope at Forest Hill is that that leadership will help pave the way to fielding a team that can hold its own among the eight teams in district 7A-13.

“A lot of the kids that were with us last year came up so they have a little seasoning to them now,” said assistant manager Johnny Perez. “We’re looking forward to having a lot better year this year than we did last year.

Senior and returning starter, Carlos Blass, agrees with Perez’s assessment.

“We learned to come together as a team,” said Blass. “We’ve gotten closer. There’re more seniors now, so there’re more leaders.”

Another returning starter, infielder Corey Mahoney, is also enjoying his senior year and the comfort, as well as the challenge, that comes with it.

“I already know what to do,” Mahoney said about practices, “so I can help the other guys out with whatever they need.”

Rounding out the Falcon’s senior class are transfers Yadian Barcelo and Jose Torres, Alex Molliner, who received the proverbial “call-up” from junior varsity, Juan Iglesias and catcher Manny Bejerano, who had the second best batting average on the team last year.

For all the continuity from last year’s club, Perez believes that inexperience may once again be the thorn in the Falcon’s side. The roster is still loaded with underclassmen, and the pitching staff, in particular, is untested. Still, Perez is encouraged by the improvement he has seen and is excited about the different possibilities they will have on the mound.

“Everybody’s working so hard,” commented Perez, “that it’s hard to put a number one out there right now.”

In some cases, the youth is more exciting than it is daunting.

Sophomore Raymond Sanchez put up solid numbers both at the plate and on the mound in his freshman campaign and should be a key contributor in 2015.

“Even as a sophomore we’re looking for him to be a big leader on this team because he has a tremendous work ethic,” said Perez. “He goes out there and he leads by example and he goes out there and works as hard, or harder, than anybody else you can ever imagine.”

Corey Mahoney is among the team’s senior leaders.

Overall, defense looks to be the team’s strength again but they have put in a lot of time towards getting better with the bats. Much of that work has revolved around having a better plan at the plate and situational hitting.

“I’m really proud of the way these boys have been out here working,” said Perez. “Doing the little things that we weren’t doing last year, as far as hitting.”

With all the improvement and added experience, Perez and his team are taking a confident demeanor into the season.

“We’re getting into it this year with the attitude that we’re going in to scare the big guys,” Perez said.

With schools like Atlantic, Dwyer, West Boca and Royal Palm also in 7A-13, he concedes that that may be easier said than done.

“Everybody in our district has gotten better,” Perez said. “So there isn’t just one (team) you can focus on anymore.”

Even so, he and his team are not backing down from the fight.

Lake Worth
2014 Record: 3-23
Manager: B.J. Gilbert
Coaching Staff: Patrick Logan (IF), Aaron Fox (Hitting), Danny DeStefano (Assistant Manager), Ken Vander Sande (Assistant)
Key Returners: Chase Forrest, Kevin Hankla, Jonathan Rodriguez, Widgy Adea, Tyler Vander Sande
Key Newcomers: Marco Martin, Richard Ornelas, Luis Ramos, Miller Francis
Team Strengths: Experience

Widgy Adea has improved his hitting a expects teammates Jonathan Rodriguez and Tyler Vander Sande to have big seasons.

“Exciting.”

That’s what manager B.J. Gilbert thinks about the Lake Worth Trojans’ upcoming season. Except he uses it three times, back-to-back-to-back, to ram the point home.

After all, this is the season the third-year skipper has been looking forward to since the get-go. A former Trojan himself, he felt the program had lost its way when he first took the helm, and he has spent the time since diligently working to rebuild a tradition of quality baseball.

He knew it would not be easy, that there would be growing pains along the way, but all the while, he looked to his third season as the one when the foundation would finally be in place. Now, he believes, the time has come to build on that foundation.

The materials that he hopes to build with are hard work and pride. Since the beginning he has cited a blue-collar attitude as one of the main principles of his philosophy. This season, the pride is starting to manifest itself.

Gilbert beams when he talks about the team’s cumulative 3.17 GPA, noting that the building process starts in the classroom, where the players learn both responsibility and discipline.

Gilbert himself is not afraid to play a role in achieving that GPA. Junior Widgy Adea views his manager like a second father and credits him for sometimes helping the players with their homework, all of which is indicative of a coach who takes a vested interest in preparing his players for their future and seeing them succeed.

That pride is evident again when talking to senior Marco Martin, a transfer from Atlantic who speaks glowingly about Gilbert and the support he has given him in trying to get into college. To hear Martin is to hear an athlete who will jump through hoops for both his manager and his team.

“Position-wise, I mean, I’m going to play everywhere,” Martin said. “I’m just going to play the field and help the team out. It’s all about the team. Wherever coach needs me, I’m an athlete, so that’s where I’m going to be playing.”

Kevin Hankla took the same approach last season when, as a junior who had never pitched before, he took the mound for 18.1 innings out of necessity. This season, he again will be on the bump for Lake Worth, and he feels that having Gilbert as a manager and mentor has been a blessing.

“Its great having a coach who really believes in the program,” Hankla said. “Comes every game, pumps us up, you know, has been here through all the flaws that we have and I think this year we’re really confident.”

That confidence will play a critical role in the team’s fate this season. The Trojans play in a tough district, 7A-13, but Gilbert believes that such stiff competition only makes his team better. It is an attitude of “to become the best you have to beat the best,” and the manager thinks it paid dividends towards the end of last season. After posting a 2-21 record, the Trojans battled hard and gave eventual district finalist Dwyer a run for their money in the playoffs before falling by a score of 3-1.

Both Gilbert and Adea believe that game will serve as a stepping stone to a successful 2015.

“We’re ready for the next step because we have been working together and we’re bonding more,” Adea said. “If you saw the Dwyer game, we were bonding more and playing as a team instead of playing individually.”

The Dwyer game is not the only reason for optimism. The Trojans did not lose any seniors from last year’s squad and have six on the roster this season. Gilbert thinks that kind of continuity and leadership will be a huge asset to the program.

“Now, for me, I can sit back and my kids sound like me when they talk,” said Gilbert as he watched senior Chase Forrest delegate responsibilities while the team prepared for practice. “They know exactly what to say and how to get kids going.”

While the district offers plenty of competition, Gilbert believes the Trojan’s most difficult opponent will be themselves. The team beat themselves a lot last year by committing critical errors.

“We made a lot of routine mistakes last year. You get rid of the routine mistakes, and you make those plays, now you’re in the baseball game,” said Gilbert. “And now you’re talking about a one, two run game, you

Senior Chase Forrest will play outfield for the Trojans and hopes to bring a big stick to their line-up.

know, and now, they make a mistake and then, here you go.”

When asked about the off-season measures taken to correct the problem, the manager reiterated “ground balls” about ten times. To follow that up, he rattled off about ten “pop flies,” in a row, the point being to accentuate that the routine has been all about repetition and a devotion to fundamentals.

“So, we’ve been working,” the manager finished, again referencing his and the team’s blue-collar mentality. “Working hard, we’re working hard over here.”

Perhaps this will be the year when all that work finally pays off.

Olympic Heights
2014 Record: 7-18
Manager: Casey Beck
Coaching Staff: James Krupa Jr, Joe Centroni
Key Returners: Miguel Fernandez, Damian Gonzales, Nick Stachnik, Aaron Weldy, Matt Levine
Newcomers: Kevin Cruz, Ivan Ortiz, Brad Rose
Team Strengths: Defense

First year manager Casey Beck has the Lions believing in themselves.

Optimism reigns supreme in January and February. At this time of year, every team in the county thinks they have a shot, even the Olympic Heights Lions, who won only seven games last season.

Listening to first-year Manager Casey Beck talk, you can understand why. The man oozes confidence and enthusiasm, both of which are qualities that have been sorely missing from the Lions baseball program for quite some time. Even better is that the players really seem to be buying into it.

This season will be one of renewal for both the manager and his team. Beck, who just moved to Florida in June after spending much of his young life playing college ball and trying to to realize the dream of being a professional ball player, is settling in to his first-ever varsity-level managerial position. Meanwhile, the Lions have lost five seniors to graduation and two more underclassmen to transfer, leaving them with just four players who have seen significant playing time. It seems to Beck to be the perfect time to instill a new culture into a program that has long been deemed as apathetic, and he hopes to get it started by passing on some of the knowledge and values he has learned through his experiences.

Two of the cornerstones to his baseball philosophy are teamwork and discipline.

“I’m trying to really bring a family mentality to this place,” said Beck. “We break out everything on ‘Family’ now. We practice with the JVs. I want everyone to learn the same system and do things the right way.”

He does not want that mentality to stop at the team level either. He wants the whole school and the community to get involved as well. To that end, he has made significant improvements to the the team’s field, and he hopes that building a winner to play on it, one that will help to draw crowds and create a festive atmosphere come game time.

Building a winner is where the second part of his philosophy comes in.

“Discipline,” Beck said when asked what the key was to getting the Lions to turn the corner. “Hustle and do the little things right. The smallest, most minute details are what I will jump all over a kid for because that is what will cost you a ballgame. That is what will win you a ballgame.”

Of course, all the discipline in the world means nothing without some measure of talent, and Beck believes his guys have that in abundance.

“I honestly expect them to compete this year,” Beck said. “I know first-year coaches are supposed to say the cliche…well, we do need to build the program up, but I think we’re going to be able to compete this year right away. I honestly believe that with the core I have. They just need to learn discipline.”

Although the bats admittedly have a ways to go, he believes defense will be the Lions strong point. Part of that is because of Kevin Cruz, a newcomer to the team who Beck calls a “stud” at shortstop. He also has high hopes for Ivan Ortiz, Miguel Fernandez and and Damian Gonzalez. All three are infielders and seniors who will be going on to play at the next level. Ortiz, like Cruz, will be enjoying his first season as a Lion.

Jared Spector and Matthew Levine will be his workhorses on the mound, where he also expects Aaron Weldy to contribute.

In regards to the deficiencies at the plate, Beck is taking a proactive approach. The team is working hard on the fundamentals and mechanics. They are putting in an effort to have a better plan when they step into the box and being aware of the situation, rather than just swinging away and hoping for the best.

In the end, Beck knows that regardless of what he does, it all comes down to the players.

“They’re going to win games, they’re going to lose games,” Beck said. “I just try to get them as prepared as possible and hopefully, they’re starting to buy in.”

Fernandez and Weldy, two of the few returning members from the 2014 squad, certainly are. Both credit Beck for a renewed enthusiasm and believe that he gives them a great opportunity to succeed.

“Love him,” said Fernandez when asked about his new skipper. “He’s put us through a lot of work, conditioning a lot everyday, and I feel great. I love him.”

It’s not just the work ethic that Fernandez is buying into. He thinks Beck’s attitude is influencing the whole team.

“Every player on this team is catching on to that,” he said about Beck’s enthusiasm. “The way he motivates us, just making us feel better about ourselves. It just makes us want to play more everyday. I like that.”

Aaron Weldy is just one of the returning Lions who is encouraged by the culture his new manager is trying to instill.

Fernandez and Weldy want to do more than just talk about their appreciation for Beck. They are both eager to show it by contributing any way they can, whether it be by shouldering the load as leaders, helping to teach the younger players or stepping in to play whatever position they may be needed at on any given day. They are the type of players that the rookie manager would like to symbolize Olympic Heights baseball.

“I’m just trying to teach them life lessons and to be better men and to be better ball players,” Beck summarized. “Honestly, just to be good young men.”

Royal Palm Beach
2014 Record: 14-13
Manager: Kason Gabbard
Coaching Staff: Thomas Coates, Greg Key, Kletus Stubblefield
Key Returners: Triston McKenzie, Brandon Hernandez, Sean Malynn, Nick Fernandez, Zach Odell, Sean Houck
Newcomers: Jesus Pena, Troy Hamilton, Nick Toney
Team Strength: Defense

Senior starting shortstop Brandon Hernandez participates in infield drills during a recent practice.

Seniors Triston McKenzie and Brandon Hernandez have grown up together in the Wildcat varsity program, teammates since they were freshmen.

Hernandez, who started at catcher as a freshman before moving to his more natural shortstop position, is looking forward to his senior season. He has signed with Santa Fe Community College.

“I feel big things are gonna happen for this team,” said Hernandez, who has batted over .300 in each of his previous seasons, including .321 as a junior. “I’m feeling really good about this season. There’s a different chemistry, we’re more tight this year.”

McKenzie has blossomed into one of the top pitchers in the county and signed with Vanderbilt. He only pitched three innings as a freshman but became the No. 2 starter as sophomore. He struck out 53 and walked 23 in 43.1 innings as a junior and believes he’s improved since then. It’s possible the 6-foot-5, 160-pound right-hander might be drafted in the first round.

They will be playing for their third manager in four years as Kason Gabbard takes over the reins after serving as the pitching coach for the last two seasons. Gabbard is a 2001 Royal Palm Beach graduate and spent three seasons in the major leagues with the Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers from 2006-08.

“I think we have a great defense, we have a solid rotation,” said Gabbard, whose team is infused with underclassmen. “It’s going to be exciting this year. If we can hit, get on base, we have a fast team, we can be successful.”

Gabbard has a lot to choose from to follow McKenzie in the rotation, including senior Nick Fernandez and juniors Logan Pittman and Zach Retzler. Hernandez and Alex Rosa will both see time as the closer while newcomer Jesus Pena, a left-hander, will also see some action.

Senior Triston McKenzie is expected to be the Wildcats’ ace this season.

But the Wildcats will depend heavily on McKenzie.

“He’s gotten stronger and gotten a lot quicker,” said Gabbard. “That’s the biggest thing (quickness). The last two years we told him he needs to improve on his work ethic and he’s shown that this year. If he keeps that up, he’s got a bright future.”

McKenzie says he will rely on all of his pitches, but likes throwing his fastball.

“The last time it was clocked at 92,” said McKenzie, who believes he can get it higher. “I’m always excited for the season, it’s always fun. It’s my senior year, I want to go out with a bang.”

Other key returnees include senior outfielder Sean Malynn, who hit .333 last season, junior outfielder Zach Odell, who batted .342, and sophomore Sean Houck, who will probably move to third base from the outfield.

Like Hernandez four years ago, the Wildcats will start a freshman behind the plate as Gabbard is planning to use both Troy Hamilton and Nick Toney.

New Royal Palm Beach manager Kason Gabbard works with the catchers during practice.

Gabbard is depending on Hernandez, McKenzie and Malynn become team leaders, something he believes is an important to a successful season.

“I tell them that this is your team. We’re (the coaches) out here to guide you,” said Gabbard. “We’re trying to build for now and into the future. They need to be more vocal, to step up when circumstances are good and when something needs to be said. The biggest thing we’re trying too teach them is to come together. If we can build a team and if we come together, we’ll be successful.”


West Boca
2014 Record: 22-2
Manager: Nathan Underwood
Coaching Staff :Josh Golding, Mike Barrett, Bobby Stallone, Mike Purtell
Key Returners: Chris Busch, Michael Lazarus, Kyle Morgan, Grant Mahoney
Newcomers: Jordan Keller, Chris Charlock
Team Strengths: Base running, Defense

The Bulls partake in some baserunning drills at a spring practice.

The West Boca Bulls were a powerhouse in 2014. As a team, they batted over .300 and had a sub 1.00 ERA. They lost only one game throughout the regular season and were widely expected to make a strong run at their second state championship since 2011.

Then the playoffs started and the Atlantic Eagles got hot, stunning the Bulls with a monumental upset in the district semifinals that abruptly ended their season.

A lot has changed since that bitter-sweet season a year ago. Manager Nick Siano has passed the torch to one of his assistants, Nathan Underwood, and eight of the starters from the squad have graduated. It all amounts to a lot of question marks for Underwood and his young Bulls, who are expected to have three juniors as well as a couple sophomores and freshman among their starting nine.

Underwood suspects that the retooling may result in some struggles early on but welcomes the challenge.

“Although it’ll be frustrating at times going through the growing pains,” Underwood said, “it’s actually exciting because we’ll be fine this year, but for the next couple of years it’s giving them the experience where they’re not gonna be shell-shocked moving up from the JV level.”

One of the kids Underwood will be counting on to bridge the gap is sophomore third baseman Jordan Keller, who understands the expectations of West Boca baseball.

“There’s definitely pressure,” Keller said. “I mean with the guys we have and the winning tradition, every year we come in a win baseball games and we gotta keep it up.”

Chris Charlock is another underclassman who is expected to contribute.

“Backing up the two seniors last year at first base taught me a lot about leadership on the field,” said the junior. “I just wanna get out here and win.”

The Bulls are not completely without experience however. Chris Busch and Michael Lazarus both return from last years squad. Lazarus is a senior who played some outfield last season, but will be primarily behind the plate this year. Busch, also a senior, was a starter who batted a whopping .436 on last years club. This year he expects to “step up in the three-spot and hit a couple of home runs.” His older brother Bradley, bashed three long balls as a senior in 2014 and Chris would like to do even better in his final season as a Bull.

“I mainly just focus hitting up the middle,” Busch said about his plate approach. “Hitting the ball hard on the ground. If the time comes around where it’s in the zone, I’ll take it.”

On the mound, the Bulls lost starters Angelo Dovas and Sean Gabel, both of whom had sub 1.00 ERAs in 2014. Underwood admits that this year’s staff will be something of a question mark without them but has high hopes for both Grant Mahoney, a hard thrower, and Kyle Morgan, a crafty lefty. They are just two of six seniors Underwood has on a staff that has only about 25 innings pitched under its belt.

Nathan Underwood takes the reigns from long time manager Nick Siano

Defensively, the club looks solid. They have a fairly strong infield and “good wheels” in the outfield, according to Underwood. He also sees the team’s aggressiveness as a strong point and plans on using the running game to force opponents into errors.

While the team may not have the talent to duplicate last year’s stellar 22-1 record, they see no reason that can not get hot and go on a run like Atlantic did last year, thereby reclaiming the crown.

“We definitely have a sour taste in our mouth from last year,” said the catcher, Lazarus, “So we owe them one for sure. That was big upset.”

*Palm Beach Lakes also in district. Report unavailable.

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