No. 1 Jesuit Tigers (Tampa, Fla.)
State Association/League: Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) Class 5A/District 11
Head Coach: Richie Warren (6th season as head coach)
2011 Results: 27-7 overall record; FHSAA Class 4A State Runner-up
Key Losses: 3B Pete Alonso (transferred), 2B Justin Martin
Top Returning Players: Sr. RHP/SS Lance McCullers (Florida); Sr. C/1B Joey Altieri (South Florida); 1B/RHP Max Beerman (Villanova); Sr. OF/RHP Conor O’Brien (N.C. State); Sr. C/3B Nolan Schultz (U of Rochester); Jr. SS/RHP Spencer Trayner (North Carolina); Jr. LHP John Kilichowski (Vanderbilt); Jr. C/3B/RHP Adrian Chacon (North Carolina)
Notable Matchups: March 17 vs. Gulliver Prep; March 31 @ Tampa Catholic; April 10-13 vs. Jesuit Easter Tournament @ Regis, N.Y.
In the hours before Tampa Jesuit’s 2012 preseason-opener against Land O’ Lakes at Jesuit’s 1st Pitch Classic on Feb. 7, senior right-hander/shortstop Lance McCullers took the time to make a special presentation.
McCullers, a 2011 Perfect Game All-American and the No. 3-ranked national prospect in the high school class of 2012, was last year’s recipient of the prestigious Jackie Robinson Award, given annually to the Perfect Game National Player of the Year.
McCullers received the award from former major-league pitchers Tommy John and Trevor Hoffman during the PG All-American Classic Awards Banquet in San Diego the evening of Aug. 13, and promptly offered an eloquent acceptance speech invoking the memory of Robinson and the role the man played in shaping American society.
“I really can’t put into words what it means to win this award,” McCullers said that night, speaking without notes. “Jackie Robinson was such a great person on the field – he was a great player – but off the field he was a great person who broke through barriers.”
As much as that award meant to McCullers, he was willing to part with it. Before Jesuit’s season-opener he presented the award to Father Richard C. Hermes, S.J., Tampa Jesuit’s president.
“Lance is going to take the Jackie Robinson Award – something he cherishes – and present it to Father Hermes for it to be displayed in our trophy hall,” Jesuit head baseball coach Richie Warren said in a telephone interview with Perfect Game on Feb. 6. “It will forever be in the trophy hall, and (McCullers) credits Jesuit with forming in him the core foundations that you need to win that award. It’s going to be a great night.”
With players like McCullers and seven other starters returning from last year’s Florida Class 4A state runner-up team, Jesuit is so highly regarded that it debuts today as the No. 1 team in the 2012 Perfect Game Preseason National High School Rankings.
“You look at our team, and we have probably the most depth we’ve ever had at Jesuit, and there’s been some really good teams here,” said Warren, a 2000 Jesuit grad. “We have a lot of guys that can play and that just adds to the intensity of practice because everyone’s playing for a spot, and we have a 25-man roster where everyone can compete for a spot.”
McCullers and five other returning senior starters led Tampa Jesuit to each of the last two FHSAA Class 4A state championship games but lost each time to defending PG national champion Archbishop McCarthy. Because of reorganization within the FHSAA, Tampa Jesuit and Archbishop McCarthy are no longer in the same classification.
Based on the lineup they brought back this season, the Tigers (27-7 in 2011) would have loved to have been given the opportunity to knock the Mavericks from their perch.
“The last couple of years we’ve really emphasized getting to that state championship game,” Warren said. “Looking back on it, what’s happened is that state championship game has become ‘final.’ We started counting outs instead of enjoying the moment and trying to get better. Our mantra this year is that the little things count, every little thing you do matters and we can’t cut corners. And the last thing is that we have fun every day and we try to get better every day.
“If we carry that attitude of having fun and getting better every day into that last game, maybe we won’t be counting outs and we’ll just be enjoying the moment.”
McCullers is a University of Florida signee and has a right arm that has delivered fastballs from the pitcher’s mound to home plate at 100 mph, and made throws across the infield from shortstop to first at 98 mph. He was 5-3 with a 2.02 ERA his junior season, with 79 strikeouts in 52 innings.
McCullers, whose father Lance McCullers Sr. enjoyed seven productive seasons in the major leagues as a relief pitcher, is also a terrific hitter from the left side of the plate. He hit .422 with seven home runs, 10 doubles, 24 RBI and 46 runs scored in 34 games in 2011.
He is expected to pitch at the next level, which could be in Gainesville or somewhere in professional baseball. McCullers attended 22 Perfect Game events between 2008 and 2011, including the PG All-American Classic, and PG ranks him the No. 11 overall prospect in June’s MLB First-Year Player Draft.
He has been a leader for Warren since day one.
“We’ve been lucky at Jesuit to have a program filled with rich tradition and it’s very rare when a freshman comes in and not only makes your ballclub but also gives you some meaningful innings,” Warren said of McCullers. “That’s what Lance did as a freshman and then as a sophomore he was voted a captain by his teammates, and this is the third year in a row he has been voted captain.
“There’s a ton of respect for him in the clubhouse and the kids look to him for advice. He knows he has to go out there and go hard every day because everyone on our club is watching him.”
Jesuit’s roster is brimming with quite a few other players who also possess legitimate star power.
Seniors Joey Altieri (C/1B), Max Beerman (1B/RHP), Conor O’Brien (OF/RHP) and Nolan Schultz (C/3B) are among the returning starters from 2011. Altieri has signed with South Florida, Beerman with Villanova, O’Brien with N.C. State and Schultz with the University of Rochester (N.Y.).
As juniors, Altieri hit .309 with 20 RBI and 22 runs scored; Beerman batted .291 with a team-high eight home runs and drove in 30 runs; O’Brien was a .274 hitter with 14 RBI; and Schultz hit .431 (47-for-109) with six home runs, 40 RBI and 30 runs.
Beerman also started five games from the mound last season, and went 4-0 with a 1.94 ERA. O’Brien started seven games on the hill and was 5-0 with a 2.71 ERA, with 45 strikeouts in 41 1/3 innings.
Coach Warren also has three outstanding juniors on his roster in catcher/third baseman/right-hander Adrian Chacon, left-hander John Kilichowski and infielder/right-hander Spencer Trayner.
Chacon is ranked 61st nationally in the class of 2013 and recently committed to North Carolina. Trayner is also a UNC commit who hit .342 as a sophomore, while also finishing 6-2 with a 1.74 ERA in a team-high 10 starts. He struck out 54 in 56 1/3 innings.
Kilichowski is one of the country’s top up-and-coming left-handed pitching prospects. A Vanderbilt commit, Kilichowski (6-foot-5, 200-pounds) was 1-1 with one save and a 1.20 ERA working out of the pen as a sophomore, and with a fastball that has already reached 90 mph, he is ranked 30th overall in the national class of 2013.
“We’re going to have a team full of guys that are going to play at the next level that hopefully will all buy into it that it’s a team game just played by individuals,” Warren said. “If we can do that, all the college commitments and all the draft statuses and all that stuff can be thrown at the window.”
It’s one thing to be ranked No. 1 in preseason polls and quite another to earn that No. 1 ranking – and the title of PG National Champion that goes along with it – in the season’s final ranking. Warren is a Jesuit alum – as are Al Lopez, Lou Piniella, Marc Valdes, Brad Radke and Shane Robinson – and has been around a lot of terrific high school teams and players.
So Coach, is this team deserving of a No. 1 national ranking?
“It’s tough in high school because you don’t get a chance to see a lot of these (teams) play,” Warren said. “I’m around these guys every day and they conduct themselves like a team that should be nationally recognized, and not only on the field but in the classroom and in the community. Whether we win a state championship or finish ranked in the nation, it all kind of pales in comparison to what kind of men these guys are developing into.”