Over the past five seasons, there have been few teams in the country that can match the credentials of American Heritage.
Mythical national champions five years ago when they won a Florida state championship, the Patriots were national champions by at least one ranking service last year when they captured the Class 5A state title.
"Last year's team had a top five finish in all major polls," said assistant coach Mike Macey. "This team potentially could be better."
That's a scary prediction for the rest of Class 5A, which boasts some of the top teams in the state. Last year, the Patriots had to get past Jesuit (Tampa), which was ranked No. 6 nationally at the time, in last year's semifinals. They did it with a game-winning hit by a No. 9 hitter and in the process knocked off one of the nation's top pitchers in Lance McCullers. The Patriots went on to defeat Ponte Vedra in the state final.
This year's team figures to be more experienced, with seven returning starters, and is certainly unfazed by big game pressure thanks to last year's thrilling semifinal win. As a result, American Heritage begins the season ranked No. 2 in the Xcellent 25 Preseason National Baseball Rankings. The overall Xcellent 25 will be released Feb. 19.
The Patriots field a lineup that includes six Division I commits, topped by pitcher Shaun Anderson
and catcher Zack Collins
. Anderson, who pitched 14 scoreless innings in regional and semifinal play, is headed to the University of Florida next year. He went 6-1 last year with a .77 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 63.1 innings pitched.
Collins, meanwhile, is considered a potential first or second round Major League draft pick at catcher. A MaxPreps All-American as a junior, Collins batted .442 with 25 runs, 31 RBI, 11 doubles and four home runs. He's headed to University of Miami.
Other returning starters include Danny Zardon
, a third baseman headed to LSU, and semifinal hero Brandon Diaz
, who will head to Florida International. Zardon batted .409 with 28 runs, 27 RBIs, seven doubles and two home runs last year while Diaz had the hit that led to American Heritage's win over Jesuit.
Other newcomers who are also committed to play college ball next year include senior shortstop CJ Chatham
and senior right-handed pitcher Dean Pelman
. Chatham is headed to Florida Atlantic while Pelman will join Anderson at Florida.
"We will hit for average and power and we have the ability to score runs," said Macey.