By:  J. Daniel Pearson for Positively Osceola

With opening regular season games beginning on Feb. 19, little should change as Harmony and Osceola will be the favorites for the Orange Belt Conference.  But has changed is the promise of new stars emerging and new faces leading the county’s eight public school programs.

Harmony, which won the Orange Belt Conference tournament last year and captured an at-large regional berth in Class 7A , should field a strong team this season.  While the Longhorns say goodbye to P/SS Caden Scarborough (sixth round pick Texas Ranger) they return a wealth of talent at the plate, in the field and on the mound.

Cade Walter (.391, 15 RBI) has been one of the top hitters in the county for the last two years and would have posted better numbers but missed several weeks with injury last year.  Yathaniel Matos (.342) and Sam Castillo (.342, team-leading 31 hits) are returning all-county players.   Although Scarborough was the true ace of the team last year, Evan Christ (5-0, 2.54 ERA) and Ismeal Rivera (2.33 ERA) give the Longhorns two returning pitchers with experience.

The Longhorns lineup could also be bolstered with the return of Anthony Medina, who transfers back to Harmony after one season at Lake Nona.   “With the exception of Caden, we have everyone back on defense and have a pretty experienced pitching corps,” Coach Heath Williams said.  “If we stay healthy and compete to our abilities, there’s no reason why we can’t compete for the OBC and district championships.”

One team Harmony will have to get through is Osceola.  Although they beat the Kowboys three times in the regular season, they lost to them in the district championship.   Osceola (16-10) would go on to win a regional playoff game and advance to the regional semifinals.

Osceola was hit hard by graduation, saying goodbye to 15 seniors, including major contributors Carlos Negron (P), John Rodriguez (P), Terry Cruz (OF), and Louis Rodriguez (INF).  At the end of the season legendary head coach Scott Birchler (242 wins, 8 district titles) retired, leaving a hole in leadership.

That gap was quickly plugged when AD Rick Tribit tabbed Toho’s Nikko Martell to take over.   Martell is  young coach who built the Tigers into a solid program from scratch.  Martell does have some talent returning, including one of the best players in the county in SS/P Nick Palmi.  A senior, Palmi hit .383 last year with 13 extra base hits and 20 RBI.  Catcher Yamil Santiago and 3B Jason Ramos (.429, 21 RBI) also return.

“Traditionally, under coach Birchler, also has always played a very competitive schedule in order to prepare for a playoff run and nothing is changes from that perspective,” Martell said.  “I am have been extremely pleased with the hard work and focus this team has shown every practice.”

Osceola’s schedule includes spring break home games with national powers Owasso (Oklahoma)  and Don Bosco Prep (NJ).  

One of the most interesting teams this year could be the Celebration Storm.  Long a middle-of-the-pack team in OBC, Ed Kuzma’s team posted a solid 14-7 record last year and returns some outstanding talent both on the mound and in the field.  Their top three pitchers from a year ago —  Santiago Gonzalez, Sebastian Rivera and Cody Bergeron – all return.  That trio went 7-2 last season with a combined ERA of under 2.00.  Bergeron is a two-way player who hit .397 with 17 RBI; while one of the top hitters in the county, Alejandro Hernandez (.542) is also back for the Storm.  Add in newcomer David Sevilla, a junior whose family moved to the area from Venezuela, and Celebration’s lineup could be more than formidable.

“The good news is we pretty much return our entire starting line-up,” Kuzma said.  “On the down side, I can’t really say right now that we have added any depth.  If we can draw our best from our starters and stay healthy, I think we have a chance to have a pretty good season.”

With Martell’s departure to Osceola, Tohopekaliga AD Don Simon elevated Martell’s assistant Armando Perez to the head job.  Perez guided the Tigers JV team to a 10-0 record and should provide a seamless transition for the Tigers – who went 12-7 last year.

Returning players for Toho include Hudson Moberly (.537 batting average) and Doug Pena (.438); while Tyler Sheffield and Elijah Urena are the top returning pitchers.  Newcomers Fernando Ferrer (3B) and Efran Blanco (SS) could form the starting left side of the infield.

“We are a relatively young program that has never been recognized as a baseball school,” Perez said.  “We are working hard to change that narrative.  Our 2024 team has a lot of veterans, who know what it takes to compete. “

Heading into the upcoming campaign, 2022 Coach of the Year Zach Tayes felt really good about his Liberty Chargers (11-11 last season), but that was before four transfers were declared in eligible and six other players left the team for various reasons.

That left Tayes with just a few experienced players heading into their season opener.  Those players – Matt Sosa and David Jiminez – are two-way guys but the ranks are definitely thinned by the defections and eligibility issues.

“We’ll end up playing a bunch of youngsters that were slated for junior varsity,” Tayes noted.  “Hopefully we’ll be able to speed up their development.”

Fourth year St. Cloud coach James Blackmore also has a rebuilding job in front of him following last year’s 8-12 team that saw 11 seniors and seven starters graduate.  Blackmore will build his 2024 team around two-way player Sebastian Echeverry, Josh Bejarano and Damian Brooks.  Newcomers Drew Kelley is expected to compete for an outfield spot; while freshman Sammy Echeverry is penciled in as a potential starter at catcher.

Poinciana finished at 2-14 last season and also lost a lot of senior starters, leaving coach Derek Petrangeli also in a rebuild mode.  Diego Vellejo (2B/SS) and Angel Moreno (P/SS) are pair of freshman that not only could make the varsity but could compete for a starting spot.

Top returning players for the Eagles include two-way player Francisco Rodriguez (P-3B), Chris Dawkins and Angel Jiminez.  “This is probably the youngest team I’ve had since I’ve been here,” Petrangeli said.  “But we definitely have some talent here.  This is a team we can definitely build to the future with.”

Historically a strong team within the county, Gateway has fallen on some hard times recently – something new head coach Edgardo Vazqueztell hopes to change.  Like Liberty and Poinciana, youth will be the story of the Panthers this year.  Middle infielders Diego Vazqueztell (SS) and Kaleb Bermuda (3B) return after starting as freshmen last year.  Carlos Gonzalez will provide senior leadership in the outfield and Jack Mauch is the top returning pitcher.  

“As one of the younger teams in the county, our main goal will be to continue to improve throughout the season as we build our program.  One thing I am certain of is this athletes will play hard every game.  Our long term goal is to build Gateway back into one of the better teams in the county,” coach Vazqueztell said.