This is the fifth of a 7-part series unveiling the 2011 Perfect Game National High School Top 50 Rankings.
February 18: # 6-10
February 21: #5
February 22: #4
February 23: #3
February 24: #2
February 25: #1, entire top 50 list
Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association Class AAA (District 4)
2010 Results: 42-6 (District 4 Champions; TSSAA Class AAA State Champions)
Key Losses: C Ethan Bennett (Tennessee); RHP Nick Williams (Tennessee)
Top Players: LHP Philip Pfeifer (Vanderbilt); C Nicky Delmonico (Georgia); SS AJ Simcox
Notable Matchups: March 26 vs. Columbia @Blackman Tournament; April 22 @ Mount Juliet; April 30 vs. Science Hill Academy.
In a couple of preseason online articles and comments, it has been suggested Knoxville (Tenn.) Farragut High School might have to go through a rare “rebuilding” year in 2011.
Using the words “rebuilding” and “Farragut” in the same sentence is absurd. This is a program, after all, that has won three straight TSSAA Class AAA state championships and six of the past eight while cementing its reputation as one of the nation’s most dominant over the past decade.
Second-year Farragut head coach Matt Buckner has heard the “R-word” but doesn’t seem to notice. He knows he lost six starters from last year’s 42-6 state championship team, but he also knows what he has coming back.
And the No. 2 position in the Perfect Game National High School Rankings in line with his expectations.
“When you return (two of the) best players in the state, you obviously have some expectations – and that’s not just on my account; I think a lot of people would agree with that,” Buckner said during a recent telephone conversation. “The expectations are still there, they’re always here and they’re never leaving. You can call it rebuilding, but we expect to be really good and compete at a high level.”
Catcher Ethan Bennett and right-hander Nick Williams - now both at the University of Tennessee – were among the six starters Buckner lost from last spring’s state championship team. Bennett was named the2010 Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year after hitting .407 with a state-record 27 home runs, and Williams finished 9-0 with a 0.88 ERA, and was 19-0 over his career.
Guys like that are difficult to replace, but Buckner has the building blocks in place.
The Admirals will be led this season by two seniors Perfect Game has ranked among Tennessee’s top-three prospects in the high school class of 2011: left-hander Philip Pfeifer and shortstop-turned-catcher Nicky Delmonico.
Pfeifer, an Aflac All-American, is ranked No. 2 in the state and No. 50 nationally and has signed with Vanderbilt; Delmonico is ranked No. 3 (state) and No. 65 (nation) and has signed with Georgia.
Tennessee’s top-ranked prospect is Science Hill Academy senior left-hander Daniel Norris, who is also PG’s No. 1-ranked national prospect in his class. There’s a real good chance Pfeifer and Norris could go head-to-head when Farragut hosts Science Hill on April 30.
Pfeifer was the 2010 state tournament MVP and finished the season 16-0 with a 1.23 ERA, with 165 strikeouts in 96 innings. Delmonico hit .485 with 18 home runs and 75 RBIs, and smacked an eighth-inning walk-off homer to lift Farragut to a 3-1 win over Houston in the AAA state championship game.
“Those guys are projected to be pretty high Draft guys and they’re pretty talented and good leaders,” Buckner said. “We’re looking to put some guys around those two guys, and we’ve scrimmaged a few a times and I feel pretty good. We’ve got a ways to go, but I feel really good about our depth.”
The Admirals’ pitching staff will be helped by the return of senior right-hander Derek Chandler (5-3, 2.80 ERA) and junior left-hander Xander Taylor (3-0). Junior shortstop A.J. Simcox and sophomore center fielder Cameron Strickland should add some punch to the batting order.
Buckner was an assistant coach at Farragut from 2001-03 then left to serve as head coach at Knoxville Bearden High School from 2004-09. He returned last year to replace legendary coach Tommy Pharr, who left to become the athletic director and head baseball coach at the Christian Academy of Knoxville.
When Buckner took over before the start of last season, the Admirals had won two straight state titles and five of the last seven. Because of his past experiences at Farragut, Buckner knew all about the expectations.
“The bar had been set pretty high. Basically it was you win a state championship or it’s a bad year,” he said. “I knew what I was getting into and thankfully we were able to win a state championship, but I knew with baseball being baseball, anything can happen. Sometimes it’s the luck of the draw, but I’m a believer that you make your own luck a lot of times.”
For the first time in his coaching career, Buckner has had to deal with hordes of professional scouts at the Admirals’ early practices and scrimmages who are showing up to watch Pfeifer and Delmonico. He emails the scouts weekly to keep them informed about what the team is doing during the course of the week. He said there were 25 scouts at the Admirals’ first intra-squad game.
“It’s something I’ve never had to deal with, but you know what? It’s a great problem to have. I’m not complaining,” Buckner said. “If anything, I think it amps the focus up for everybody and I’m not sorry about it at all. I’ve learned how to deal with it and I want it all to go through me because at this point I don’t want (Pfeifer and Delmonico) to deal with anything but playing baseball.”
The Admirals don’t start regular-season play until they travel to Heritage on March 14. They demolished McCallie, 14-0, in a scrimmage on Feb. 19 – Pfeifer, Chandler, Taylor and junior right-hander Jordan Newby combined on a seven inning, 18-strikeout no-hitter – and will play two more scrimmages before their season-opener.
A killer schedule then lies ahead.
“We try not to play too many easy games; you might have to lose a few battles to win the war,” Buckner said. “Hopefully we’ll be pretty battle-tested by the time we get to the postseason, and as I’ve learned from Coach Pharr, that type of schedule builds your pitching staff.”
The expectations are out there. “Rebuilding” isn’t in the Admirals’ vocabulary. “Commitment” most certainly is.
“We put a lot of time into this product – and I’m not saying we’re the only ones who put time in, there’s tons of people who put time in,” Buckner said. “But I feel like our kids are really committed; we’re committed to a nine-months-a-year weight program and we’re committed to pretty much year-around baseball. We don’t have many kids that play other sports, so I feel like our kids are pretty committed to our product also.”
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