Posted: 5:11 pm Sunday, February 10th, 2013

2013 baseball preview: district-by-district breakdowns, top teams, games, players to watch 

By Matt Porter

Every January, we here at The Post send out our preseason survey to area baseball coaches. A coaches’ poll of the area’s top 10 teams is included. This year, nearly every form returned to our offices had the five teams in District 9-8A at the top of the chart.

1) That’s no surprise, and 2) we agree. Once again, Dwyer, Jupiter, Palm Beach Central, Palm Beach Gardens and Wellington will beat each other up for three months in what might be the toughest district in the state.

They’re all large schools, with plenty of good middle-school programs feeding them. There’s plenty of baseball-minded families in the area. Baseball might as well be the official language of Jupiter, Gardens and Wellington. Every school has an outstanding coach. As a result, the high school programs are loaded with talent in all grades.

So who’s going to win the district?

We have no idea. Neither do you. That’s what makes it great.

Before tomorrow’s first pitch of 2013, let’s preview District 9-8A and the other Palm Beach County districts, rank the top 10 teams, spotlight the top games, players and district races to watch, then check in on the Treasure Coast.

DISTRICT 9-8A

Dwyer‘s 1-2 combination of Cheyne Bickel and Tom Szapucki make the Panthers our No. 1 preseason team. Bickel, who has signed with Ole Miss but is an MLB Draft prospect, has the low-90s stuff, strong curve and good control. Szapucki, a sophomore lefty, was ranked the No. 3 prospect nationally in his class by Perfect Game. He works in the low-90s with ever-improving control. Dwyer should be good in the middle of the lineup with Florida-committed junior outfielder Duke Stunkel and Tulane-signed senior third baseman Hunter Hope. Young prospects like sophomore Chase Coppersmith (6-4, 175), sophomore lefty Hunter Whitman (6-5, 185) and freshman Colton Rendon (6-2, 200) may earn time.

Palm Beach Gardens will again lean on rubber-armed righty Joey Boyd, who pitched the Gators to their first state appearance since 2005. Boyd (6-1, 210) will have help from Riley Colbath. The senior would have started last year as Gardens’ No. 1 starter, but was forced to sit out due to a stress fracture in his growth plate. They’ll be a strong 1-2. The Gators lose James Jean, who had a county-high 7 homers, but they have playoff-tested producers like senior shortstop Nick Gallo. Plus, their standout juniors – Florida-committed catcher J.J. Schwarz and Virginia-committed first baseman Pavin Smith – are a year older.

Palm Beach Central has experienced seniors in third baseman Ian Hagenmiller (Palm Beach State), center fielder Gage Morey (Florida Gulf Coast), lefty John Padich (Daytona State) and Joe Shue (.347). The Broncos have one of the area’s best shortstops in junior Danny Hernandez, and junior righty Jorge Alfonso (5-3, 2.21, 32 K in 50 2/3 innings) pitches well in big spots. They also have Scott Benedict, arguably the area’s savviest coach.

Jupiter is similar to the other four: a strong returning core, and lots of young talent waiting for its turn. Senior right-hander Parker Hamilton, a Florida Gulf Coast signee, will be at the top of the rotation. Senior center fielder Peter Sitaras will set the table for senior Pat Walther (.429), one of the area’s best bats. Senior Kyle Keatts is a valued shortstop and pitcher (5-1, 28 strikeouts). Expect juniors Brandon Keithley (0.95 in 15 innings) and Lance Fry (4-0, 1.01, 35 strikeouts) to get lots of work. Junior Logan Heiser will step in at catcher for Ronnie Healy, who left to play out his senior year at Elev8 Sports Academy in Delray Beach.

Last but absolutely not least is Wellington, which has the misfortune of playing the other four teams in its district. The Wolverines have lots of pitching (seniors Jeremy Panakos and Nick Lawrence and junior Spencer Stockton will be first to get the ball) and experience, having graduated only one player (Miami signee Peter Rivera). They may not have the record to show for it (12-13 last year, 3-5 in-district) but they’ll be one of the better teams in the county. They’ll be among the best if they hit consistently.

Elsewhere …

DISTRICT 10-8A

New Boca Raton coach Rick Clagett, the program’s third in three seasons, admits he doesn’t know much about his new opponents. His team should produce while he learns the area. Aside from senior right-hander Chris Sheehan, senior outfielder Dakota Radabaugh and junior outfielder Mike Smiciklas, the Bobcats have a strong class of sophomores, and have looked strong in the preseason. Park Vista graduated six position players and the top two pitchers from last years’ district champion, but is excited about its young players, like sophomore shortstop Matthew Mika. “We’ll have to grow up very fast,” coach Larry Greenstein said. Spanish River lost ace Mike Chambers, but senior lefty Alex Demchak (6-3, 200) is ready to step into that role. The Sharks (14-12 last year) will also count on junior Matthew Slootsky (6-4, 210) and junior Ryan Berger to throw innings and hit. As a whole, they’re young. Also of note: they have a junior shortstop who transferred in from North Broward Prep. His name? Fenway Parks. John I. Leonard has a pair of Palm Beach State signees at the top of the rotation: 6-2 righty Noel Canete (4-3, 1.79) and Jared Johnson, a 6-4 lefty who throws in the high-80s. They should help Leonard turn around last year’s 9-21 mark. Seminole Ridge was a little down last year, but has shown well in preseason games against Dwyer.

DISTRICT 13-7A

It’s been an interesting offseason for defending district champion Royal Palm Beach. The Wildcats let go coach Brian Joros, replaced him with assistant Bart Wible, and then found out ace Justin Lauginiger needed Tommy John surgery. Lauginiger (9-0, 0.97 ERA, 71 strikeouts in 50 2/3 innings) went most of last season without allowing an earned run and helped Royal Palm finish 22-5, 6-0 in the district. But the Wildcats have talent behind him. Lauginiger’s brother, Jordan, will move from the ‘pen to the top of the rotation, and sophomore right-hander Triston McKenzie has a bright future. “I don’t care about the injury and the coaching change. They’re good,” Santaluces coach Nick Franco said. His team will lean on righty Peter Strzelecki (1-3, 1.93), a Palm Beach State signee who will be limited early while he transitions from basketball season. The Chiefs have strong arms and some good hitters behind him, but last year defense was their downfall. Forest Hill needs to replace ace Mike Murray, the caliber of pitcher that let the Falcons compete with anyone. Palm Beach Lakes has struggled for a while.

DISTRICT 14-7A

Atlantic made a surprise run to the Class 7A state semifinals, the Eagles’ first state appearance since 1988. They lose four of five regular pitchers from that team, but have plenty of hitting and defense. West Boca Raton needs to replace catcher Michael Barash, who graduated early to play at LSU. However, the Bulls have junior right-hander Sean Gabel and his well-controlled, four-pitch repertoire to lean on, along with six returning starters. Olympic Heights flies under the radar, but can’t be counted out. Lake Worth is rebuilding under new coach Bobby Gilbert, formerly of Suncoast.

DISTRICT 15-5A

Jensen Beach is the team to beat. Falcons ace Taylor Blatch is only 5-11, 170, but he’s headed to Florida State – and could be a high draft pick in June – for a reason. He works in the low 90s and is lights-out most of the time. Suncoast will count on its seniors, like catcher Troy Hoecker and shortstop Jack Granger. New coach Brook Cross is pleased his team is stocked with experienced players. “This is the first time in quite a while we have had that luxury,” he said. Boynton Beach has a mix of upper- and underclassmen, and will lean on junior right-hander Kyle Tedesco in big games. Fort Pierce Westwood could struggle in this district.

DISTRICT 12-4A

Lincoln Park returns seven of nine starters from last year’s district title winner, making the Greyhounds the favorite. Cardinal Newman head coach Sean Comfort takes over full-time this year, trying to start a new era after Jack Kokinda’s 43-year, 703-win tenure. The Crusaders (8-15 last year) bring back seven starters and should pitch well. St. Andrew’s is young, but capable of a .500-or-better season. Glades Central does not have consistent player turnout from year to year.

DISTRICT 12-3A

Expect another good battle between Benjamin and King’s Academy. Benjamin returns two first-team All-Area selections in senior shortstop Matt Harris and junior outfielder Bennett Sousa. Both will be at the top of the Bucs’ rotation. Experienced outfielders Kody Ruedesili and D.J. Paone also return. King’s Academy, which has reached the regional final three years in a row, graduation a bedrock player in Florida-signed catcher Kevin Stypulkowski, as well as Stetson-bound ace Matt Pisciottano. Six-year starter John Carpenter takes over as the Lions’ go-to presence on the mound. The rotation is strong, with seniors John Monte, Kyle Hanlon and sophomore lefty Matt Tucker, currently limited as he returns from basketball season. Jupiter Christian has no seniors but a couple unproven potential gems among the underclassmen. Berean Christian has a few intriguing young players and standout senior infielder Zach Watson.

DISTRICT 13-3A

American Heritage coach Carm Mazza refers to the rivalry between his school and Summit Christian as Hatfields vs. McCoys or Yankees-Red Sox. It can only get more intense after Palm Beach State-bound right-hander Anthony Delaney (1.83 ERA, 100 strikeouts with 13 walks) jumped to Heritage, ruffling feathers over on Summit Blvd. That’s a gift for the Stallions, who lost two aces (Dylan Silva and Dylan Arnold) from a state-runner-up rotation. However, they’re the favorite going in because of their wealth of young talent. Sophomore shortstop Jonathan India, a Florida commit, and freshman third baseman Connor Power hit third and fifth in the Stallions’ lineup last year. Junior Todd Isaacs and senior Anfernee Seymour, both outfielders, have difference-making speed. Sophomore Chris Canavan is developing into one of the area’s finest catchers. Summit Christian has just 11 players this year, but an experienced lineup. Senior shortstop Brandon Swass, center fielder Shane Swanson, catcher Efren Sanchez and right fielder Scott Murphy played big roles in last year’s 19-9 season. The defense will be fine; the pitching needs to prove its consistency. Pope John Paul II has a sophomore-laden core and Villanova-signed catcher Zander Retamar. The Eagles set themselves up with a tough non-league schedule, which is a smart move considering the strength of their district opponents.

DISTRICT 12-2A

Two-time district champion Boca Raton Christian brings back every player from last year’s senior-less team. The Blazers will rely on seniors Jonathan Kreh (1.88, .338 average), R.J. Walsh and Rudy Lopez. Wellington Christian and Lake Worth Christian each have super-young squads that should improve on three-win seasons. Glades Day is also young, which led to its downshift from Class 3A to 2A.

INDEPENDENT

Trinity Christian has just four returning starters but, as always, tons of talent. Palm Beach State-bound catcher Franco Guardascione plays outstanding defense, and speedy senior shortstop Darren Seferina (.333, 22 steals) is a draft prospect. The Warriors’ pitching may be a little thin, but their defense will be strong. Oxbridge Academy has no seniors, but has potential to be a contender when it makes its district debut next year.

THE PALM BEACH POST PRESEASON TOP 10

1. Dwyer – Future college players everywhere

2. Palm Beach Gardens — 8A state semifinalist has excellent pitching

3. Palm Beach Central – Productive players at every position

4. Jupiter – Good speed up the middle and contact hitting

5. American Heritage – Class 3A state finalist is still very young

6. Wellington – Would be a favorite in any other district

7. Benjamin – Established itself as a premier small-school program

8. Park Vista — Needs pitching, has plenty of speed and youth

9. Royal Palm Beach – Ready to play after tumultuous offseason

10. Boca Raton – Looked like a contender in the preseason

Best of the Treasure Coast: Martin County, Jensen Beach, Treasure Coast

GAMES TO WATCH

Wednesday – Jensen Beach at Benjamin, 3:30

Friday – Santaluces Slam finals, 6:30

Feb. 22 – Summit Christian at American Heritage, 7

Feb. 27 – Jupiter at Dwyer, 7

March 6 – Treasure Coast at Atlantic (Dave Smith Game), 7

March 8 – Trinity Christian at Benjamin, 3:30

March 8 – Dwyer at Palm Beach Gardens

March 12 – Atlantic at West Boca Raton, 6

March 19 – Dwyer at Palm Beach Central, 4

March 23 – King’s Academy at Benjamin, 4

April 3 – Dwyer at Jupiter, 7

April 3 – Park Vista at Boca Raton, 7

April 4 – Royal Palm Beach vs. Santaluces, 6:30

April 5 – Jupiter at Palm Beach Gardens, 7

April 12 – Jupiter at Palm Beach Central, 4

April 12 – Palm Beach Gardens at Dwyer, 7

April 17 – West Boca Raton vs. Boca Raton at FAU, 7

ROAD TO FORT MYERS

April 22-26 — District tournaments

May 1-10 – Regional tournaments

May 15-23 – State finals at JetBlue Park, Fort Myers

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Trey Amburgey, Park Vista, CF, Sr., 6-2, 200: Excellent speed and outfield arm, solid hitter

Cheyne Bickel, Dwyer, RHP, Sr., 6-2, 205: Ole Miss signee went 6-2, 1.70 with 79 strikeouts

Joey Boyd, Palm Beach Gardens, RHP, Sr., 6-1, 210: Palm Beach State signee the main force in last year’s run

Anthony Delaney, American Heritage, RHP, Sr., 5-10, 180: Palm Beach State signee was playoff-tested at Summit

Sean Gabel, West Boca Raton, RHP, Jr., 6-2, 170: Recruited by a host of top Division I schools

Danny Hernandez, Palm Beach Central, SS, Soph., 5-6, 150: A vacuum at short; perhaps the area’s best

Hunter Hope, Dwyer, 3B, Sr., 6-2, 200: Tulane signee has attracted pro scouts of late

Jonathan India, American Heritage, SS, Soph., 5-10, 175: Florida commit was No. 3 hitter for state finalist as a freshman

J.J. Schwarz, Palm Beach Gardens, C, Jr., 6-1, 190: Florida commit may be area’s best catcher

Pavin Smith, Palm Beach Gardens, 1B/LHP, Jr., 6-3, 185: Virginia commit with loads of potential

Bennett Sousa, Benjamin, LHP/OF, Jr., 6-3, 185: Virginia commit had 0.77 ERA, 64 strikeouts in 54 1/3 innings in 2012

Duke Stunkel, Dwyer, OF/P, Jr., 6-4, 200: Florida commit with a smooth lefthanded swing

Tom Szapucki, Dwyer, LHP, Sr., 6-2, 170: Florida commit ranked No. 3 in nation among sophomores by Perfect Game

Pat Walther, Jupiter, OF, Sr., 5-10, 160: Hits for power (.4 HR, 21 RBI last year) and average (.429)

BEST DISTRICT RACES

9-8A: Five of the county’s toughest teams in one bracket.

10-8A, 13-7A, 14-7A: Deep teams, no real favorite.

13-3A, 12-3A: Heritage-Summit, Benjamin-King’s rivalries make for great theater.

TREASURE COAST AND ELSEWHERE

DISTRICT 6-8A

It’s anyone’s game in a three-team district. While Treasure Coast lost shortstop Alvin Swoope (Florida State), the Titans’ three solid pitchers give them the edge on Centennial and Vero Beach.

DISTRICT 12-7A

Defending district champ Martin County went unbeaten in the district last year and could do the same. The Tigers have four Division 1 players: Florida-bound Jeremy Vasquez, UCF-committed pitchers Cre Finfrock and Brad Rowley and Furman-signed pitcher Nolan Mullen. Senior talent aside, most of their players are juniors. There’s good balance in this district, with each of Fort Pierce Central, Okeechobee, Port St. Lucie, South Fork and Sebastian River harboring legitimate playoff hopes.

DISTRICT 11-4A

Clewiston went 9-11 last year in a district with LaBelle and Fort Myers schools Bishop Verot, Dunbar and Gateway Charter. The Tigers return eight starters from that team, including do-it-all senior Justin Goldberg (.488, 23 stolen bases). As usual, Verot and LaBelle will be tough.

DISTRICT 6-3A

John Carroll will fight for a playoff spot along with Vero Beach-St. Edward’s and Melbourne schools Central Catholic, Florida Air and Holy Trinity.

DISTRICT 11-2A

Community Christian returns five starters, including electric senior center fielder Alex Roberts, from last year’s regional finalist. That gives the Cougars the edge over district-mates Morningside Academy and Vero Beach-Master’s Academy.