Spring break has sprung and is almost done, and for now, the Sun Prep’s area baseball teams having themselves a long weekend.
In other words, now is the perfect time to see where everyone is at after the 2023 season’s opening act. Plenty of baseball remains to be played, so bats will warm up, pitchers will settle down and identities will begin to take shape.
Perhaps you’re wondering whether a team’s identity should already have been formed by now. The truth is, it differs from year to year. This season, it seems to be taking a little longer than usual.
One team whose identity appears fully formed is Lemon Bay, where head coach Zach Gonzales’ return has the team back in Fly Mantas Fly mode.
In Venice, Craig Faulkner has taken a page out of last year’s experimentations and continues to use the Indians’ bullpen as a laboratory. Venice has used 11 different pitchers through 10 games with eight appearing at least twice.
North Port is making waves with a new coach. Charlotte appears to have the pieces, but hasn’t figured out how to put them together (yet). Imagine has shown it can play with anyone but often gets stage fright against the bigger local schools.
DeSoto County can mash it and toss it, but struggle to do both at the same time and might need to see a glove doctor. Port Charlotte is scuffling at the plate, but if the Pirates can find a little consistency there, look out.
Let’s take a closer look at everyone in order of their most recent MaxPreps ranking. The team at the top is no surprise. The team at the bottom? Let’s just say it’s difficult to see this order remaining like this one all season long.
1. VENICE (6-4): The Indians are ranked No. 123 overall and No. 25 in Class 7A.
Venice has a terrific win over defending Class 4A state champion, Island Coast, which is now in Class 5A, but remains a top-100 teams.
Unfortunately, the Indians have a pair of ugly losses to sub-300 teams – Riverview (302) and Cardinal Mooney (398). Fairly or unfairly, Venice seems to be getting dinged more for this week’s 7-6 loss to the Cougars than their resounding 13-1 win at Cardinal Mooney on March 1. The Indians also appear to be getting little credit for being the team that knocked Sarasota from the ranks of the unbeaten.
Venice has five hitters out to great starts – seniors Trent Adrian, Hunter Possehl and Justin Pachota, junior Jon Embury and sophomore Nick Dunn. Adrian is batting a team-best .391 followed closely by Possehl’s .385 and Dunn’s .370 mark. Embury (.323) leads the team with nine RBI and four extra-base hits while Pachota (.290) leads the Indians with five stolen bases and is tied with Dunn for the team lead in doubles (3).
On the mound, all the team’s wins belong to two sophomores and a freshman. Lefty sophomore Jackson Lucas is the only one with three starts. He’s 2-1 with a 0.98 earned run average. Freshman Carter Cox (2-0, 0.75) and sophomore Jobe Fish (2-1, 5.25) round out the young trio.
They are bolstered by an experienced group in the bullpen. Junior Simon Yochum has been an old-school fireman. His 12 innings of work in six relief appearances is second on the team behind Lucas and he has a team-high 15 strikeouts.
Look for Venice to make a lot of noise going forward, beginning with next Friday, when it will seek a little vengeance against Riverview.
2. LEMON BAY (8-2): The Manta Rays are No. 183 overall and No. 18 in Class 4A.
Talk about announcing your presence with authority. When Lemon Bay found itself in a redrawn district this spring, Gonzales took note of the new teams and told his Mantas that he was eager to show the newbies what Lemon Bay was all about.
Their first opportunity came early on when Lehigh paid a visit to Englewood. The Lightning are not a district foe, but they were coming off a 10-run trouncing of new district rival Lely. Lemon Bay promptly thumped Class 7A Lehigh, 10-0.
Like Venice, Lemon Bay has a weird split with Cardinal Mooney. Unlike Venice, the Mantas couldn’t solve Island Coast, falling 11-1.
3. NORTH PORT (6-3): The Bobcats are No. 213 overall and No. 46 in Class 7A.
New coach Kemo O’Sullivan has the Bobcats purring along, beating the teams they’re supposed to. Of the three setbacks, losses to Lemon Bay and Sarasota are understandable, but North Port had to be annoyed by an extra-innings loss to Inspiration Red.
This just in: Yes, the Bobcats really were annoyed. They responded three nights later by beating Red, 9-8.
The coach might be new but the names atop North Port’s offensive categories are familiar – senior Andrew Nelson and juniors Ryan Playter and Josh Doerrfield lead the way, along with sophomore Reed Backstrom.
4. CHARLOTTE (4-5): Charlotte is No. 289 overall and No. 41 in Class 6A.
The Tarpons feature a killer duo on the mound but are in desperate need of consistency at the plate.
Pitchers Clay Hayse and Dalton Hill have been special this season. Hayse is 3-1 with a 2.33 ERA. Hill, meanwhile, boasts a 1.26 ERA and has 19 strikeouts 16.2 innings. Both hurlers are missing bats. Each have recorded just three strikeouts looking among their 34 combined whiffs.
Alas, Hill is 0-2, and that speaks to Charlotte’s primary issue. As a team, the Tarpons are batting just .199 with six extra-base hits. That will need to change.
5. IMAGINE (6-4): The Sharks are No. 323 overall and No. 40 in Class 2A.
Bet you didn’t see Imagine earning a spot this high on the list. Truth is, it’s well-earned. Pitchers RJ Cooper, Jacob Lombard and Alexis Pereira have taken turns silencing opposing bats. In Imagine’s six wins, the Sharks have allowed just two runs. Unfortunately, in their four losses, they’ve mustered just five runs, with three of those coming courtesy of sloppy play by DeSoto County during the Bulldogs’ 6-3 win in February. They were no-hit by Port Charlotte’s Landon Carter and shut out by Bishop Verot. Charlotte posted a 12-2 mercy ruling.
6. DESOTO COUNTY (3-5): The Bulldogs are No. 374 overall and No. 46 in Class 4A.
The road is a really difficult place for a new coach to break in with his team, but that’s what new Bulldogs skipper Matt Martin has had to do. DeSoto County has played six consecutive road games while new lighting is installed at the team’s hurricane-damaged home field. Still, they have managed to go 3-3 over that stretch and will finally return home on Tuesday against Lakeland.
7. PORT CHARLOTTE (4-6): The Pirates are No. 423 overall and No. 59 in Class 4A.
Those rankings are a bit of a misdirection. The Pirates have been victims of a schedule that has turned out to contain quite a few dud opponents. As such, earning wins over teams such as Clewiston, Lake Placid, Fort Myers and Imagine do not move the needle and early-season losses to Cypress Lake, Palmetto and Riverview have been boat anchors.
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