Don’t call it a rebuilding year. For the Seminole State College of Florida Raider baseball team, a more accurate term might be “reinventing.”
The 2014 Raiders have a new head coach, a new coaching staff and just four returning players.
Mike Nicholson, who coached the Raiders for eight seasons (2001-08), is back at the helm. Nicholson, who had served as assistant athletics director, knows what it takes to win: His first tenure included a state championship and a trip to the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) World Series in 2003, as well as back-to-back conference championships in 2007 and 2008.
“Our goal this year is to make it to Grand Junction, Colo., for the NJCAA World Series,” Nicholson says. “But to get there, we have to make it out of Florida. Every team in this state is good. During the State Tournament, any team could wind up an out or two away from the World Series.”
With some refinement and a little bit of luck, Nicholson says, the Raiders have what it takes to make a run to the state championship.
The 2014 Raiders return just four players from the 2013 squad that earned runner-up honors in the Mid-Florida Conference (MFC) and made a deep run in the Florida College System Activities Association (FCSAA) State Tournament.
“The players this year are aware of our program’s legacy and the progress the team made last year,” Nicholson says. “But they’re trying to play the best that they can and make their own identity.”
With so many new players, there are bound to be some growing pains early on, if only because the team hasn’t had time to develop a personality. But Nicholson sees a lot of talent that can be honed to pull out some gritty wins.
“We have good depth, especially in our pitching,” Nicholson says. “I know from experience in the postseason that pitching depth is a determining factor in how successful you are. Strong pitching and good defense will determine whether we win.”
But to make the most of the team’s talents, the Raiders will have to play smart. Luckily, 11 players are transfers with some college-level experience, and can provide some leadership.
“We have a lot of young, inexperienced players,” Nicholson says. “Sophomore leadership will be critical, especially from the guys we had last year, like James Jean and Vinnie Leuzzi.” Jean, from Lake Park, is the team’s only returning All-MFC selection from 2013, and he will be used as a utility player. Leuzzi, of Winter Springs, took a medical redshirt last season, but has been hot offensively in practice.
“The big question is: Will their talent translate into wins at this level?” Nicholson says. “We have a good staff and good chemistry, so with the ability to score, that’s a recipe for success.”
The theme on offense for the Raiders this year will be productivity. Nicholson places a premium on the ability to get on base and drive in runs, so savvy batting will be key to a positive season for the Raiders.
The batting lineup is far from set, and it will likely be a work in progress throughout the early nonconference schedule and beyond. The first two slots will be filled by freshman outfielder Reyni Olivero, of Lakeland, and freshman shortstop Edwin Bonilla, of Kissimmee. But after that, things get a little muddy.
“That three-through-eight slot can vary from day to day, depending on who is playing consistently well and who is being productive,” says Nicholson.
There are a lot of players hitting well enough for consideration on a given day, including James Jean; sophomore catcher Keith Skinner, of Berkeley Heights, N.J.; freshman outfielder Austin Hays, of De Leon Springs; and redshirt sophomore infielder Ahmad Christian, of Jacksonville.
With a wealth of talent and myriad pitching styles, the Raiders should have no problem giving opponents tough looks with a healthy rotation on the mound.
“We have a lot of depth with our starters, and we have a good bullpen to back them up. Pitching is definitely a strength for us,” Nicholson says.
At the front of the rotation will be sophomore Gianni Zayas, of North Bergen, N.J.; freshman Justus Labigang, of Fort Pierce; and redshirt freshman Jake Cosart, of Friendswood, Texas. Both Zayas and Labigang have at least three formidable pitches they can use to baffle opposing batters, and Cosart has the strongest arm, topping out pitches at 97-98 mph. Cosart also is the younger brother of Jarred Cosart, a pitcher for the Houston Astros (and a teammate of former Seminole State standout Brett Oberholtzer).
Cosart and Zayas were recently ranked Nos. 2 and 7, respectively, on Perfect Game’s list of the top junior college prospects in the country.
Rounding out the starting rotation for the Raiders will be freshman Josh Brooks, of Oviedo; and freshman Alex Hagner, of Mount Dora.
The players will start the year on a pitch count, which will be adjusted based on performance. This will serve to prevent injury and fatigue while providing incentive to play as well as possible.
“I see a lot of potential for these guys to be recruited at the next level when they’re done here, either at four-year colleges or by Major League Baseball,” Nicholson says.
One of the keys to a successful season for Seminole State might be Keith Skinner, the Raiders’ starting catcher.
“When he plays, we can be good,” Nicholson says. “He provides us solid defense and throwing, and he swings the bat well. Overall, he’s a well-rounded player, so he’ll get the majority of the playing time.”
Behind Skinner, James Jean and freshman Mick Tinny, of Winter Springs, will provide support as necessary.
A strong infield usually begins with the shortstop position, and Edwin Bonilla will give the Raiders the defensive presence at that position necessary to keep opposing offenses in check. Nicholson says Bonilla, in addition to being a solid batter, is one of the best defensive shortstops in Florida, so opposing teams will have a difficult time slipping anything past him.
He will get support on first base by Vinnie Leuzzi, and on third by freshman Jansen Cosart – Jake Cosart’s younger brother, also of Friendsville, Texas. A trio of players, each with a different style of play, will see time at second base: Ahmad Christian; sophomore Benny Rodriguez, of Deltona; and sophomore Jonathan Otero, of Orlando.
“We will determine a more solid lineup as the season goes on, depending on how well everyone is playing,” Nicholson says. “Right now, they each bring different strengths to the team on offense or defense.”
In the outfield, speed and arm strength are the most important qualities a player can have, and the Raiders have an abundance of both.
The deep defense starts with Austin Hayes in right field, who Nicholson says has the strongest arm on the team. “He’s one of our best overall players in terms of hitting the ball, fundamentals and talent,” Nicholson says.
In the middle, Reyni Olivero has the speed to beat a fly ball to any part of the field, and he boasts one of the biggest arms on the team. And in left field, sophomores Bo Decker, of Clermont, and Miguel Frias, of Longwood, will split time. Both can provide a spark to the batting lineup, so playing time will be determined largely by who is hotter at the plate. James Jean will play in support as necessary.
Seminole State’s season begins with the JUCO Classic in Clearwater on Feb. 1, and the Raiders' home opener is scheduled for Feb. 7 against Eastern Florida State College. But the conference schedule doesn’t start until March. To make it to the postseason, a team must finish in first or second place in its conference. The coaching staff will have nearly two dozen nonconference opportunities to experiment with rosters to determine which lineup gives the Raiders the best chance to get to the postseason.
“Any time there are a lot of new players, there are going to be question marks going into the season,” Nicholson says. “So we’re going to play around with lineups during February and try to work everything out so we can hit the conference slate running.”
As long as they’re ready for the conference opener – a series against perennial MFC power Santa Fe College, starting March 5, that includes two dates at home and one in Gainesville – Nicholson gives the Raiders as good a shot as anyone in the state to make a deep postseason run.
“Going into the season, you don’t know what the competition will be like,” Nicholson says. “Any day, you have the potential to have a knock-down, drag-out ballgame. I don’t see any team really running away with a conference or state title this year.”
They will be tested early and often. The Raiders will battle Southern Conference champion Miami Dade College at the JUCO Classic in Clearwater on Feb. 1, and they face Suncoast Conference runner-up Hillsborough Community College in Tampa (Feb. 15) and at home (Feb. 21), leading up to a Feb. 22 doubleheader against defending state champion Palm Beach State College.
In-conference, the Raiders will face their toughest challenges from rivals Daytona State College and Santa Fe, but there may be particular focus on St. Johns River State College. SJRSC and Seminole State both finished last season with the same conference record (18-6), but the tiebreakers fell in favor of the Vikings.
The season will be full of challenges, but the prospect motivates Nicholson and the Raiders.
“I’m excited to be back as head coach,” Nicholson says. “The team is striving to play their best, and my staff is working hard to help them improve on a daily basis. It might not happen overnight, but I think once the conference schedule starts, we’ll be able to compete with anyone in March and April.”
All Raider home events are free to Seminole State students, faculty and staff with a valid Blue & Gold Card, the Seminole State ID. Admission is also available to the general public for a small fee. For more information, and to view the Raiders' complete season schedule, please visit the Seminole State baseball home page.
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