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State Association/League: Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) Class 5A/District 16
Head Coach: Bruce Aven (2nd year as head coach)
2012 Results: 28-4; 5A District 16 Champion; FHSAA 5A State Champion; Perfect Game National Champion
Key Losses: MIF Brandon Lopez (Miami); OF Gabriel Aurrecoechea (Florida Atlantic); OF Esteban Puerta (Florida Atlantic); RHP Domenick Mancini (Florida Atlantic); RHP Alex Seibold (Florida International)
Top Returning Players: Sr. C Zack Collins (Miami); Sr. RHP Shaun Anderson (Florida); Sr. OF Brandon Diaz (Florida International); Sr. 3B/MIF Danny Zardon (Louisiana State); Sr. C.J. SS/OF Chatham (Florida Atlantic); Sr. RHP Dean Pelman (Florida); Jr. OF Brandon Vicens (uncommitted)
Notable Matchups: Feb. 5 @ Archbishop McCarthy; March 20 vs. American Heritage (Delray Beach); April 8 vs. Gulliver Prep; April 16 vs. Arlington Country Day
THE AMERICAN HERITAGE PATRIOTS didn’t exactly come out of nowhere to win the 2012 Perfect Game National Championship last spring. They were ranked No. 9 in the 2012 PG National High School Preseason Rankings, but that was a distinction that left them as only the third highest-ranked team from the state of Florida.
The Patriots’ lot in life improved dramatically by the end of May when they rolled to the FHSAA Class 5A state championship and a 28-4 record, which included wins over PG preseason No. 1 Tampa Jesuit and Ponte Vedra in the state tournament’s final four. A month later, American Heritage was awarded the PG High School National Championship.
Those accomplishments came under the guidance of first-year coach Bruce Aven, a Texas native and former big-leaguer who took over for long-time American Heritage head coach Todd FitzGerald before the start of the 2012 season.
“Going into last year, we knew we had six kids on our team that were Division I players, and we had some other guys that were juniors that were key, key players; we were pretty deep as far as pitching,” Aven said in a recent telephone interview with PG. “I don’t know if everybody else knew how good we were going to be, but we had a pretty good idea of how good we were going to be. We had five pitchers who could throw from 87 (mph) to 92 and that’s hard to find.”
Winning back-to-back national championships is a daunting task, but Aven returns enough firepower from last year’s team for the 2013 version of the American Heritage Patriots to debut at No. 1 in the Perfect Game National High School Preseason Team Rankings.
Key components from last year’s championship team graduated into the college ranks, but six seniors that have signed letters of intent to play at NCAA Division I universities in the 2013-14 school year bolster the roster and make the Patriots an immediate threat. Before looking ahead, Aven took one more look back at 2012 and an important lesson he learned as a first-year coach.
“Our biggest deal was really trying to keep people focused on what we were capable of accomplishing as a team,” he said. “We had a lot of players who had individual success and a lot of players that were getting individual attention. Scouts were coming in every game and colleges were following us, and so we had a lot of guys already committed.
“We wanted to keep the attitude and the mindset of leaving something behind; making sure that when they come back 10 years from now that their name was left behind because they accomplished something.”
Whatever accomplishments the 2013 Patriots achieve will come from a senior-laden lineup that features 2012 Perfect Game All-American and PG National Showcase alumnus Zack Collins. A 6-foot-2, 205-pound primary catcher who is ranked 12th nationally in the class of 2013, he signed with the U. of Miami and is ranked the No. 52 overall prospect in the 2013 MLB amateur draft.
Collins hit .442 (34-for-77) with four home runs, 11 doubles, 31 RBI and 25 runs scored as a junior. He also drew 23 walks and was hit by a pitch twice, giving him an on-base percentage of .557 to go with a .766 slugging percentage.
“It’s really just his presence on the team (and) his presence every at-bat – he changes the whole lineup every time he steps in,” Aven said. “His maturity to take a walk is, to me, his biggest asset as a player. His patience at the plate, his willingness to take a walk and still be ready to hit is his biggest strength.”
Another key returnee is senior right-hander Shaun Anderson (6-5, 235 pounds), the anchor of the 2013 rotation. Anderson, a Florida signee ranked 161st nationally and another PG National Showcase alumnus, threw a team-high 63 1/3 innings in 14 appearances (nine starts) as a junior, compiling a 6-1 record with a 0.77 ERA and team-high 74 strikeouts.
“Shaun Anderson has the work ethic of an animal; he’s a beast,” Aven said. “He comes in day-in, day-out and busts his butt, and you have to pull him back more than anything. He really studies the game and he’s learning how to pitch. That’s what helped his last year – he was a pitcher, he wasn’t a thrower.”
Anderson is the only starting pitcher Aven has back from 2012; workhorses Alex Seibold and Domenick Mancini were lost to the college ranks. Those two right-handers totaled 17 starts and 99 innings, and were a combined 15-2 with a 1.41 ERA and 130 strikeouts. Aven feels like he has the arms to replace those innings, and it all starts with Anderson.
“The team was built around (Anderson) last year,” he said. “… We threw Shaun against some tough teams and he kept throwing up zeroes. He was our ace last year and he’s back (in that role) this year.”
Third baseman/middle-infielder Danny Zardon is another important senior returnee. Ranked 149th and a PG National alumnus who signed with Louisiana State, Zardon hit .409 (36-of-88) with two home runs, 27 RBI and 28 runs as a junior. Senior outfielder Brandon Diaz, ranked 202nd and who ran a 6.43-second 60-yard dash at the PG National, also returns after batting .381 (24-for-63) with a couple of homers, 23 runs scored and 16 stolen bases in 17 attempts. He has signed with Florida International.
Aven expects some help from senior transfer Dean Pelman, a 6-1, 185-pound right-hander who was at Nova High School (Davie, Fla.) in 2012. Pelman is a top-500 prospect who also signed with Florida and unleashed a 91 mph fastball at the 2012 PG WWBA Florida Qualifier. Shortstop C.J. Chatham, a Florida Atlantic signee, also transferred in from Nova HS and is expected to contribute immediately.
“It’s really all about staying healthy,” Aven said, looking ahead to the upcoming season. “Man for man, as far as position players, we match up with anybody in the country, but if you lose a Zack Collins, the drop-off is huge. (Injuries) can change your whole team (and) I would say the same thing for (every team).”
About a month after being crowned the 2012 PG High School National Champion, Collins, Anderson, Diaz, Zardon, Pelman, Chatham and junior outfielder Brandon Vicens all traveled with Richie Palmer and his South Florida Elite Squad to the west Phoenix suburbs to compete in the inaugural 17u Perfect Game World Series.
The Elite Squad won the prestigious event with a 7-1-1 record, besting 15 other elite 17u teams from across the country. At the completion of the tournament, Collins was named the Most Valuable Player and Anderson the Most Valuable Pitcher.
Aven said he encourages his players to participate in Perfect Game events and even builds his fall-ball schedule around major PG tournaments. He specifically constructs his pitching rotation so the players are available to pitch in those events.
“That’s where they’re going to get better, that’s where they’re going to get seen more, that’s where they’re going to ‘up’ the value of their stock,” he said. “You have to go out and win (and) you have to go out and compete against some the top talent in the country. When they went out to Arizona and competed, I was ecstatic; I wanted them to go out there. Now you’re competing.
“You’re not going out and beating some rinky-dink school on the side so that you can say you’re 30-1. You went out and played some people.”
Aven played parts of six seasons (1997-2002) in the big leagues with Cleveland, Florida, Pittsburgh and the L.A. Dodgers, and also played parts of nine seasons in the minors. He was a 30th-round pick of the Indians in 1994 out of Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.
He enjoyed his first season as a high school coach and feels like he has the right group of young men who are receptive to what he can pass on to them from his experiences in college and professional baseball.
“I enjoy this level,” he said. “I’ve had opportunities to go to the next level … but I enjoy teaching (high school players) how you talk to the scouts, how you handle yourself on the field, how you handle yourself off the field, what your responsibilities are, and what your off-season program is going to be. I like teaching them everything. There are great parents and great kids here, and I enjoy it a lot.”