Baseball takes center stage as spring sports kicks into high gear this week for county schools and two of last year’s top teams look to build off of last year’s success.

Osceola, who fell one game short of making the Class 7A Final Four last year with a 2-1 road loss to Durant in the regional championship, lost significant talent and leadership off of that 20-8 team; including SS Jose Perez (.348, 18 RBI), 3B Josean Sanchez (.325, 21 RBI) and ace pitcher Manuel Lopez (5-1, 1.28 ERA).

But rivals will not feel too sorry for the Kowboys, as Coach Scott Birchler returns a ton of talent and picks up two valuable transfers for the 2022 season. 

“On paper, we are probably a little better team at the beginning of this season as compared to last year,” the veteran coach says.  “But as with all sports, chemistry, injuries, and other factors will always play into things.  We are a talented team, the question is will we play as one?”

The two transfers that most likely will fit into Osceola’s plans this season are senior Chris Palmi (3B, C, P) and Nick Palmi (So., SS/P).   The Palmi brothers played at St. Cloud last year, but transferred to Osceola, where their mother Carrie is the Kowboys’ head volleyball coach.

Both played significant roles in the field and at the plate for the Bulldogs last year.  Chris was the team’s leading hitter (.308) and was also 4-2 on the mound with a 3.00 ERA; while freshman Nick was 4-0 with a 0.67 ERA and was the team’s starting shortstop when not pitching.  As pitchers, both averaged more than a strikeout an inning, combining for 70 strikeouts in 53.2 innings of work.

With the return of Shawn Lara (5-1, 2.00 ERA), Danny Ramirez (0-0, 0.84 ERA) and this year’s projected closer Blake Birchler (2-0, 3.00 ERA) the Kowboys‘ pitching staff is deep.  “We actually have about 10 arms I am comfortable with using,” Scott Birchler noted.  “We will use the early part of the season to figure out our top guys.”

Osceola does return some talent in the field as well. Two-sport star and speedster Isaiah Jean-Baptiste (.298, 13 SB) will bat leadoff and play centerfield.   Ramirez, when not on the mound, is a solid 1B/DH and hit .304 last season; while Edwin Melendez hit .275 last season and can play several positions.

The Kowboys started their season off with a (3-1) record including a 3-2 loss against district rival Lake Nona on Wednesday night where they gave up only one hit. Osceola bounced back from that loss to the Lions with a 16-5 win over rival St. Cloud on Friday night.

Harmony graduated a lot of offense last year with the departure of then-seniors Jackson Joseph (.342), Coy Moore (.342), Jacob Sevilla (.375), and captain Jeremy Garcia (.350).  But like Osceola, the Longhorns return a solid core of players led by Caden Scarborough (Jr., P/OF/3B), Anthony Medina (So., SS/2B, .407 BA), Bradley Meza (Sr., C/OF, .294 BA), Yathniel Matos (So., OF, .250 BA, 10 R, 11 RBI), Gabriel Castro (Sr., 1B/P, .224, 5 RBI).

In addition to Scarborough (3-3, 2.26 ERA, 50 K, 40.1 IP), Trace Loeding (Jr., 0-0, 1.11 ERA) and Gabriel Castro (Sr., 2-0, 0.70 ERA) will factor on the mound for the Longhorns; while head coach Heath Williams will look for significant contributions from newcomers Samuel Castillo (Fr., OF), Clayton Williams (Fr., P), Evan Christ (So, P).

“We are young but in terms of talent and chemistry, this could be a very good team by the time the season is over,” Williams said.   “We definitely will rely on our pitching staff to carry us in the first third of the season, and hopefully our young talented position players will step up at the plate.”

Harmony is off to a 1-4 start and will play a demanding schedule that includes two games with The First Academy, currently ranked 19th in the nation and third in the state of Florida.

Between graduation and other reasons, St. Cloud (13-9 last season) loses 12 key players off their roster that made regionals last season after losing the district title game to Harmony.  To further complicate matters, the team’s top returning hitter and pitcher Lukas Larkins suffered an injury and will be lost for the season. 

Coach David Blakemore will have to rely on talented newcomers Ayden Hampton (Jr., CF/P),  Benji Segura (Jr..  P/OF),  Jorge Vicioso  (Jr., C/IF), Roman Lopez (Jr.,  C/OF),  Logan King (Fr.,  P/3B/1B),  and Aiden Pegauro,  (Fr., IF/P) to fill the void.

St. Cloud’s record is 1-3 heading into this week’s play.

Tohopekaliga Head Coach Nikko Martel continues to build the Tigers program, which will be aiming for its first winning season after setting a school record with five victories last season. After a 0-11 start last year, the Tigers won five of their final six to finish on a high note.

Top players for the Tigers include Joseph Miglionico (Sr., OF/P, .242 BA, 9 R, 8 RBI), Javarius MaGee (Sr., C/INF, .244 BA, 9 R, 9 RBI), Alex Santiago (Sr., P/INF, .182, 5 RBI).

Celebration graduated eight position players and pitchers off of last year’s 11-10 team that were considered starters or part-time starters.   For Celebration to reach its potential this season, Head Coach Ed Kuzma must rely on veteran pitchers Bryce Reel (6-1, 2.14 ERA, 36K, 36 IP) and Gael Torres (Jr., 1-1, 2.38 ERA) to carry the load while promising newcomers Ciro Yanez (Fr., C) and Santiago Gonzalez (So., P) develop.

The Tigers are off to a solid 3-1 start this season and has now win eight of their last 10 after going 7-30 in their first two and half years of competition.

Gateway Coach Johnnie Kirkland returns a small roster off of last year’s 5-9 team, including upperclassmen Nick Bargelski (Sr., .296 BA, 6 RBI), Alejandro Rios (Jr., .333 BA. 10 RBI) and Liam Stern (Jr., 0-4, 4.12 ERA) 

“We have a solid nucleus of mostly juniors.  We are building our program around that group.  They are a great bunch of kids that work hard and are not afraid to get dirty in practices and games,” Kirkland says.  “Anthony Segarra transferred in to our program and although he is just a sophomore, he is a tremendous player with a lot of potential.”

Both Liberty (5-18) and Poinciana (2-12) will look to improve after rough seasons.  The Chargers top returning players include Genesis Hernandez (Sr., P/OF, .375 BA, 3.63 ERA), JC Santos (Sr., SS, .326 BA, 8 R, 7 SB); while the Eagles welcome back Anthony Colon (Sr., INF, .400 BA), Chris Rodriguez (Jr., 1B/P/OF, .214 BA, 6 R).

Liberty is off to a solid 3-1 start this season.  Santos and Edwardo Perez were hitting a combined .600 through six games (15 of 25); while Rueben Perez was hitting .385 with a team-leading seven RBI.