For two straight seasons, the Pensacola Catholic Crusaders have spent the end of their season in Port St. Lucie competing in the Florida state championships.
In 2011, Pensacola Catholic came up short against Bishop Verot (Fort Myers), falling in the 3A final 4-3. In 2012, the Crusaders reversed the outcome, defeating Bishop Verot 7-2 in the 4A championship game.
With seven starters returning from last year's 27-3 squad, coach Richard LaBounty's team could be making a third stop in Port St. Lucie. The Crusaders have 20 wins returning on the pitching staff, boast a strong defense up the middle and have just two bats missing from last year's offensive lineup.
As a result, Pensacola Catholic begins the year ranked No. 7 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 Preseason National Baseball Rankings. MaxPreps is counting down the top 10 teams in the country to start the season with the overall Xcellent 25 to be released Feb. 19.
Pitching and defense will be the hallmark of this year's Crusader team. With two Division I signees in the lineup, Pensacola Catholic will be a tough matchup in district and postseason play.
"We have two division I pitchers who both return for their senior season with plenty of big-game experience," said Pensacola Catholic Director of Operations Keith Haynes. "Both pitched in important playoff games last season and thrived."
tops the list of returning pitchers. He went 9-1 last year with 112 strikeouts and a 1.45 ERA in 77.1 innings pitched. He's also headed to Mississippi State University next season and he's the team's top returning hitter with a .348 average and 28 RBIs. Geyer defeated Bishop Moore (Orlando) in last year's Class 4A semifinal game, giving up two runs on five hits with seven strikeouts.Cooper Jones
, meanwhile, went undefeated last year at 8-0 with 58 strikeouts and a 1.14 ERA in 55.1 innings pitched. He is also headed west after high school to play at the University of Southern Mississippi. Jones defeated Bishop Verot in the state final, giving up two runs with three strikeouts and no walks.
The Crusaders can also add Zane Gill
to the list. As a freshman, Gill went 3-0 with 15 strikeouts in 17.1 innings pitched.
The pitching staff gets plenty of backing from an all-star defensive crew up the middle. Shortstop Drew LaBounty
is a third-year starter headed to the University of South Alabama while second baseman Jon Jon Burkett
is also a third-year starter who will play at Tallahassee Community College.
At catcher, Tanner Halstead
returns after a stellar junior season. The Northwest Florida State College prospect threw out 46 of 48 prospective base stealers last season and had only one passed ball. In centerfield, James McGhee
, also a third-year starter, is back.
LaBounty batted .329 last year with 17 stolen bases and 28 runs while Burkett batted .323 with 28 runs and 22 RBIs. McGhee batted .299 with 21 runs scored.
Pensacola Catholic only loses two batters from last year's offensive lineup, but coach LaBounty hopes to replace them with newcomers Evans Bozeman
, a sophomore first baseman, and Gavin Wehby
, a junior leftfielder. LaBounty feels that both have potential to play at the college level.