EAST LAKE — A season removed from being ousted from playoff contention by the region's liveliest arm, East Lake is back and ready to make another run.
The Eagles return much of last year's 24-4 Class 8A region semifinalist roster that lost 3-0 to Durant High and 2013 second-round MLB draft pick Tyler Danish.
East Lake, winner of three straight district championships, began this week at 4-0 after opening the season by winning its own Lee Byers Invitational Tournament, capped by a commanding 9-3 victory over Bradenton IMG Academy.
Coach Dan Genna said after that performance that the team still has plenty of work ahead but is pointed in the right direction.
“This team hasn't caught up with last year's,” he said, “but they made their identity today by winning this tournament.”
That identity, similar to most Genna-coached teams, largely begins and ends with solid pitching and defense.
“Our philosophy doesn't change: pitching, defense and getting quality at bats,” he said. “When we put innings together where we hit we're going to be tough to beat.”
Through four games, East Lake outscored its opponents 20-6. The starting righthanded pitching trio of seniors Cameron Churchill and Brad Deppermann and junior Ryan Wall give the Eagles confidence they can compete with anybody on any night.
The Eagles' offense is setup by the 1-2 combo of junior centerfield Sawyer Wirth and senior shortstop and Wake Forest commit Keegan Maronpot.
Ian Lisle, Nick DeSantis and Churchill provide additional pop toward the top of the East Lake lineup.
All aspects will be tested during a 10-day, four-game stretch this month that includes three Class 7A District 9 contests. From March 4-13 the Eagles square off with Pinellas Park, Countryside, Seminole and non-district rival Dunedin.
East Lake now has something more to prove following this past week of games. The Eagles surprisingly dropped back-to-back dates with Northeast and Largo.
Countryside is a top challenger
CLEARWATER — Looking to knock East Lake off its North County pedestal will be Countryside High.
The Cougars also began the week 4-0, averaging over 10 runs per game.
C-Side's first big test came this Tuesday at District 7A-9 foe Pinellas Park. Coverage from that 2-0 win can be found by going to www.SuncoastNews.com.
Steering the Cougars so far, both offensively and from the mound, are seniors Charlie Skantze and Christian Townsend.
While averaging a 10-spot is unrealistic for a 25-30-game season, the Cougars have to be encouraged by the early run production. Periodic stretches of fading offense held Countryside teams of the past two years back at critical times.
The Cougars reportedly had seven of its everyday players hitting between .312 and .529 as of Tuesday afternoon, according to MaxPreps.com.
One of those individuals is newcomer Kyle Kania, a 6-foot-2 corner infielder.
Similar to East Lake, though, Countryside was dealt its first loss this week when Northeast topped the Cougars 2-1 on Friday night.
Making a case for Dunedin, PH
Two interesting programs to watch this season will be Dunedin and Palm Harbor University.
The Falcons are taking orders from a head coach not named Tom Hilbert for the first time since 1997.
Ron Sexton took over a young team this offseason shown its inexperience at times (losses to Land O' Lakes, 13-3, and Fivay, 10-2) but also its promise (a comeback 7-6 over Seminole).
Led by shortstop Trevor Jensen, the Falcons can still swing the bats. It's a thinness of pitching arms that may stunt Dunedin's ability to contend for a playoff spot in the Pasco-heavy District 5A-8.
A 180-degree turn from that scenario is where PHU finds itself.
Brian Auerbach and Clayton Moran anchor a Hurricanes staff that has begun the year with a sub-2.00 ERA.
What PHU lacks, though, is pop at the plate. Only seven of the 'Canes first 41 hits have gone for extra bases – just 1.4 per game.
Reaching the postseason for the first time since 2008 will require at least a little more offensive production.
While none of District 8A-8's four-team field is exceptional, Bradenton Manatee, PHU, Sarasota Riverview and St. Petersburg can all legitimately stake claim to being a worthy title contender.
The 'Canes strengthened their case Friday afternoon with a convincing 4-1 home win over Riverview.