By:  J. Daniel Pearson
For Positively Osceola

Make no mistake about it, when it comes to hitting a baseball Harmony’s Cade Walter can absolutely rake.

After getting just three varsity at-bats as a freshman, Walter blossomed into not one of the best hitters in not only Osceola County but also one of the best in the region and state as a sophomore.  He led the Longhorns in runs (18), hits (35), extra-base hits (10) and walks (13), while recording a .515 batting average. Walter had a .598 on-base percentage to go with a .735 slugging percentage and a 1.333 OPS (on-base plus slugging average) – all tops in the area.

But baseball is a team game and even when you consider the vast talents of Walter, the Longhorns offense is full of more question marks that actual answers according to head coach Heath Williams.  Anthony Medina (.340) transferred to Lake Nona, leaving Harmony with a bunch of talented — but unproven sophomores and juniors that Williams hopes will fill the void left by Medina and some graduated seniors. 

Those players include starter Sam Castillo was hitting only .167 last year as a freshman before he admitted to his coaches that his hip hurt – an injury that would sidelined him for a big portion of the season’s remainder.  Outfielder Yathniel Matos knocked in 12 runs a sophomore this year and could be an important cog in the Harmony offense; while newcomer Angel Ramos –a transfer from the Miami area – looks to grab the starting position at short stop.

Williams will rely on seniors Caden Scarborough and Trace Loeding to anchor the pitching staff.  Scarborough was hampered last year with tendonitis, but if healthy would be the team’s ace.  Junior transfer Justin Negron and sophomore Clayton Williams – who saw significant action as a freshman – should help solidify the staff.

“If our pitching staff stays healthy, we have a chance to be pretty good,” Williams said.  “With so many young players in our day-to-day lineup against a really difficult schedule, the most important thing I want to see is that we are competing – regardless of who we are playing.”  

Harmony, which finished at 11-16 last season, will play a difficult schedule includes the First Academy’s O-TOWN Classic (Mar. 14-16), where they will play in consecutive days Class 3A Regional runner-up First Academy (26-4), Colorado state champions Parker Ponderosa (23-7) and Class 7A Regional semifinalist Apopka (20-9) on consecutive days.

Nikko Martell led his Tohpekaliga Tigers to their first winning record in school history last year with a 10-9 mark and he noted the team is aiming even higher in 2023.  “With the talent we have coming back our goal is a 15-win season and our first playoff victory in school history,” Martell says.  “We did lose some outstanding seniors but those guys became role models for our younger guys, and I think those players are ready to assume those leadership roles.”

Returning position players Justin Diaz (.485), Jose Montalvo (.303), Deric Cruz (.333) and Anthony Paradiso (.260) will be regulars in the day-to-day lineup; while Montalvo and Tyler Sheffield will anchor the pitching staff.  Martell said sophomore newcomers Christian Viali (OF) and Jack Kook (LHP/1B) should also contribute.

“We had an incredible amount of interest and a big talent pool show up for tryouts. We are going to field a freshmen team for the first time in school history,” Martell said.  “Our program is definitely on an upswing.”

Defending Orange Belt Conference champion Osceola (21-6) won districts last year and advanced to regionals, but lost a ton of talent to graduation – including Player of the Year Danny Ramirez, Blake Birchler, Edwin Melendez and Chris Palmi.  Head coach Scott Birchler received another setback when Antonio Melendez – who was supposed to be the Kowboys’ ace this season – was lost for the year with an arm injury sustained in the fall.

“We lost a lot experience and talent to graduation and when Antonio went down in the fall, it sent us into full scramble mode in pre-season practice,” Birchler said.  “Although we are playing a really tough schedule, the fortunate thing is we don’t have to be good early.  This will be a young team that will certainly need some time to mesh.”

Birchler will count on starting shortstop Nick Palmi (.250, 2 HR, 21 RBI) to provide that early leadership his team will need.  Palmi will also see significant action on the mound; while lefthander Carlos Negron will battle to become a “top of the rotation” guy.  Newcomer John Rodriguez and Josh Coloma will also see action on the bump for the Kowboys.  

Osceola will look for its offense to come from returning starters Jason Ramos and Luis Rodriguez; while sophomore catchers Luis Vargas and Yamil Santiago will be relied on for both offense and defense.

When Zach Tayes took over the Liberty program in 2021, the Chargers had endured eight consecutive non-winning seasons.  Tayes needed just two years to turn that around, as Liberty went 15-11 last year – earning Tayes “OBC Coach of the Year” honors.

Although two outstanding all-county players in JC Santos and Yandel Gonzalez have graduated and leading hitter Edwardo Diaz transferred, Tayes returns several talented players that should be enough to keep the Chargers on a winning path.  Those players include Kenai Crespo (OF), Jay Aponte (P), Omir Santos (C), and Armani Colon (P).   

Tayes says sophomore Adrian Cuadrado will contribute and added that newcomer Dylan Vazquez – a switch hitter – may replace JC Santos at shortstop.  “A lot of sports have been down at Liberty the last couple of years, but we had a winning season last year and we certainly have the talent to get to 15 wins again this year,” Tayes said.  “Our baseball team wants to help change the culture at the school and show that Liberty not only has good athletes and but can also field winning teams.”

Sophomore catcher Ciro Yanez (.308) heads the list of players returning for Ed Kuzma’s Celebration team that went 9-13 last year.  Cody Bergeron is a veteran that will help the Storm on the mound when he is not starting at first base.  Santiago Gonzalez is another arm that will factor into the Storm’s pitching rotation.

Kuzma has several promising newcomers including Sebastian Rivera (P), Joander Leon (2B/OF), Javier Alcantara (OF/1B) and Luis Velez (3B, P) this year.  “It’s a little bit difficult but because of transfers, we always seem to be rebuilding,” Kuzma says of his young team.  “This is a good group with no seniors starting on opening day.  About our only goal and expectations are to give maximum effort and win the inning.  If we keep our focus simple, I think we may be happy with the outcome.”

St. Cloud did not have a senior in its starting lineup off of last year’s 6-18 team, a point head coach David Blackmore says will make this year’s edition of the Bulldogs more competitive this year.  Ben Segura returns as both the leading hitter (.339) and top pitcher; while infielders Jorge Vicioso (.288) and Ed Garcia (.273) also return.

Freshman Sebastian Echeverry has been extremely impressive in the pre-season and will become an everyday contributor for the Bulldogs either on the mound, at third base or catcher.  Bulldog starting quarterback Logan King saw significant time at first and on the mound as a freshman last year and will do so again.  Also look for Ayden Hampton to contribute on the mound.

“We’re all a year older and more experienced,” Blackmore said.  “Several of these guys had excellent summers in travel ball and have looked good in workouts.  We’re in the same tough district, but I think we can be competitive and hopefully play well enough to get past the district stage.”

Both coaches at Poinciana (1-16 in 2022) and Gateway (4-14 last season) face major rebuilding issues.  

The Panthers have turned their program over to first-year head coach Hal Keene; while Derek Petrangeli returns as the Eagles coach.

Gateway had some solid players returning in Antonio Segarra-Santiago (.383) and Antonio Pereira-Rios (.294) and will count on a two-way contribution from Liam Stern (P/INF).  Jack Mauck (2-2, 2.82 ERA) also returns on the mound.

Poinciana’s top returning players are also two-way players in Chris Rodriguez (P-INF) and Freilly Parejo (P-INF).  

County teams are permitted to play pre-season classics; with regular season games permitted beginning Feb. 20.  The county champion will be determined when the Orange Belt Conference Tournament is held the week of April 9-14.