No. 3 Venice Senior Indians (Venice, Fla.)
State Association/League: Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) Class 6A/District 11
Head Coach: Craig Faulkner (16th season as head coach)
2013 Results: 29-3 overall record; FHSAA Class 7A District 11 Champion; FHSSA Class 7A Region 3 Champions; FHSAA Class 7A State Champion; Perfect Game High School Showdown Champion
Key Losses: 1B/LHP Nick Longhi (Boston Red Sox); RHP Cooper Hammond (Miami); MIF Colton Lightner (Stetson)
Top Returning Players: Sr. SS Dalton Guthrie (Florida); Sr. C Michael Rivera (Florida); Sr. OF/C/RHP Ryan Miller (Florida Atlantic); Sr. OF/RHP Brandon Elmy (Furman)
Notable Matchups: March 7 vs. Tampa Jesuit; March 21 vs. Sarasota; March 26-29 vs. USA Baseball NHSI at Cary, N.C.; April 3-5 vs. Perfect Game High School Showdown at Fort Myers, Fla.; April 15 at Sarasota
THE FOUR YOUNG MEN PROUDLY WEARING THE FOREST GREEN AND WHITE colors of Venice Senior High School are seniors now. Over the past two seasons, when Dalton Guthrie, Michael Rivera, Ryan Miller and Brandon Elmy were sophomores and juniors, they probably had more flat-out fun playing baseball than just about any of their peers along Florida’s baseball-crazy Gulf Coast.
Guthrie, Rivera, Miller, Elmy and their Venice Indians teammates have firmly established themselves as winners over the past two seasons, and the winning isn’t expected to stop anytime soon. Venice Senior High won back-to-back FHSAA Class 7A state championships in 2012-13 under the direction of head coach Craig Faulkner, and opens play on Feb. 11 at Lakewood Ranch High School with a third straight title as its obvious target (VSHS has been reclassified to FHSAA Class 6A this season).
The Indians finished 29-3 in 2013 and landed at No. 2 in Perfect Game’s Final National High School Rankings. Today, they open at No. 3 in the 2014 PG Preseason National High School Rankings looking to make the leap to No. 1 by season’s end.
“We thought it might be tough to get the right mindset, but these guys are pretty special kids and they are winners,” Faulkner told Perfect Game in a telephone interview late last week. “Their mindset is to work hard and they’re not looking past the first game, which is what you want as a coach. We want to think about all the steps to success and we feel like we have to hit every step to be successful.
“It’s easy to jump ahead when you’ve got a good club and you’ve got some real good players but these guys are pretty focused on (taking) one step at a time.”
The whole “one step at a time” or “one game at a time” ideal might seem cliché but it is an approach that has worked for Faulkner (he also coached Venice to a 7A state championship in 2007). He is a Venice Senior High alumnus who played at Louisiana State for four years under legendary coach Skip Bertman, and he also played and coached in the minor leagues. He returned to Venice as an assistant coach in 1997 and became head coach in 1999.
The 2013 Indians squad was led by six seniors who are on college rosters this spring, including right-hander Cooper Hammond at Miami and middle-infielder Colton Lightner at Stetson. And then there is first baseman/outfielder/left-hander Nick Longhi who was drafted and signed with the Boston Red Sox; he played 16 games in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League last summer.
But those graduated prospects wouldn’t have won back-to-back Florida state championships without the help of this current senior class and its four D-I signees.
Dalton Guthrie, a shortstop and the son of former big-league pitcher and Florida Burn travel team head coach Mark Guthrie, has received the most acclaim. Perfect Game ranks him the No. 67 national prospect in the class of 2014 and the No. 226 overall prospect in June’s MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Hitting in the leadoff spot, Guthrie, a Florida signee, hit .298 with seven extra-base hits, a team-high 24 runs scored and 15 stolen bases in 17 attempts last season. He also handled 109 of 115 fielding chances successfully, a .949 fielding percentage and carries a 4.6 GPA.
“Dalton Guthrie just runs the whole defense and makes all the plays, and he’s a leadoff-type hitter and does the same thing at the plate,” Faulkner said. “He’s a real savvy player, and he’s matured a ton since last year – even really since this past summer and fall at all the Perfect Game (events). I really like what he’s doing.”
Rivera, an excellent defensive catcher who has also signed with Florida, hit an eye-popping .528 (47-for-89) last season, with a home run, a triple and an astounding 21 doubles – four times as many two-baggers as any of his teammates. His 47 hits and 28 RBI easily led the team.
“Mike Rivera just continues to be the player that he is … and he rises to the big occasions and always comes through,” Faulkner said. “He’s healthy and probably in the best shape of his life, so that’s good to see. He’s a tremendous hitter, tremendous catcher (and a) tremendous leader.”
Elmy, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound right-hander/first baseman/outfielder, was the winning pitcher in both of Venice’s state championship games the past two seasons and Faulkner tabbed him as the Indians’ No. 1 starter in the rotation this season. He finished 5-2 with a save and 1.21 ERA in 2013, and struck out 39 in 34 innings.
“He was throwing 83-84 (mph) the last couple of years and he’s touched 90 now, so that’s pretty exciting,” Faulkner said. “He’s got a good breaking ball and a good changeup, and he’s got a good mental frame on the mound.” Elmy, who carries a 4.45 GPA and has signed with Furman, also hit .297 with a home run, six doubles and 12 RBI.
Miller is described by Faulkner as a “late bloomer” who is most highly respected for his versatility –he has pitched, played centerfield and shortstop and signed with Florida Atlantic, which recruited him as a catcher. He hit .337 and stole eight bases as a junior, and has shown outstanding arm strength with a 92 mph fastball and a 1.78 Pop time from behind the plate. His GPA is right at 4.0.
“Ryan Miller is a tremendous outfielder and pitcher … and he really plays the game at a high level,” Faulkner said.
Guthrie, Rivera, Miller and Elmy combined to play in 93 Perfect Game events since 2010, most while winning numerous PG tournament championships with the Florida Burn in the past two years (the Burn was runner-up at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in October). All four attended the PG National Showcase in Minneapolis last June, and in addition to Guthrie’s lofty ranking, Rivera comes in at No. 161, Miller at No. 232 and Elmy at No. 340.
And it’s no coincidence that Guthrie and Rivera may end up as Florida Gators teammates.
“Actually, me and Dalton have been talking about it since eighth grade,” Rivera told PG last fall. “We always said we were going to go to the same school, and since he committed before me, I had to follow; we stuck with that promise.”
“Florida is lucky to have those guys – if they get them,” Faulkner said, referring to their draft potential. “They’ll come to Florida with the ability to win, to know how to win and to know how to handle the big situations. The little nuances in the game, they do them right and they’re professional about what they do. They’re committed kids and do things right.”
Although those four prospects form the core of the Venice roster, they won’t be able to win a third straight Florida state title on their own. Faulkner is hoping to get a lot of innings out of junior left-handed knuckleballer Kade Hunkapiller as part of a rotation that will have Elmy and Miller out front.
“Kade has gotten better and better with his knuckleball, and he’s a lefty so it’s kind of an odd thing,” he said. “He’s really tough. He doesn’t walk guys and he’s tough to hit so we’re excited to see what he’s going to do in the third hole.”
The Venice Indians won last year’s inaugural Perfect Game High School Showdown thanks to pitching performances that produced four shutouts in four games, but also with superb base running (11-for-11 in stolen base attempts) and equally impressive defensive play (two errors in 111 total chances).
That’s the kind of baseball Faulkner and his staff – which includes Mark Guthrie and former minor-leaguers Jose Velez and Rich Carroll, among others – like to see. And with speedy juniors Langston Provitt and Josh Evans in the lineup, Faulkner thinks this team’s small-ball capabilities could go through the roof.
“We’re faster this year than we’ve ever been; we’ve got probably six or seven guys that can go,” he said. “Our goal is to create havoc on the bases. That’s what we do best and that’s what I like as a coach – my favorite part of the game is the base-running part. We’ve got some guys that can go, so we’re going to be hitting and running, bunting, stealing bases and playing the small game.”
The seniors on this year’s Venice Indians roster have had a lot of fun playing ball over the past two years and, again, it doesn’t look like that fun will end anytime soon.
“They are focused, maybe the best I’ve ever seen; I thought that was going to be our biggest issue,” Faulkner said. “It’s hard to win a state championship in Florida. It’s not something that is an easy thing to do, and we were very lucky to have won one, much less two in a row. We don’t go there in our minds; we don’t talk about winning another one. We talk about getting a high seed in the district (tournament) and moving on from there.
“That’s the focus we want on the steps to success that we need and hitting each step,” he concluded. “You can’t jump steps and be successful, so that’s our (entire) focus.”