FORT MYERS, Fla. – Henry B. Plant High School in Tampa, Fla., is enjoying quite a summer in the national spotlight thanks to the accomplishments of several alumni of the school’s baseball program. And this week, about 130 miles south of Tampa in this steamy Southwest Florida city, a current group of Plant High School baseball players are hoping to build on that emerging legacy.
Scorpions Tampa 17u arrived at the 17u PG BCS Finals this past Saturday with a roster that has 11 of its 18 spots occupied by Plant HS players that will be seniors and juniors – with one very talented sophomore – in the fall (mostly juniors); Perfect Game places most of those players quite high in its national prospect rankings.
These Plant prospects have some living-up to do. At last month’s MLB June Amateur First-Year Player Draft, Plant High School class of 2015 graduates Kyle Tucker and Jake Woodford were both made first-round picks. The Houston Astros selected the outfielder Tucker with the fifth overall pick of the first round; not long after, the St. Louis Cardinals took the right-hander Jake Woodford in the Competitive Balance Round-A (first-round) with the 39th overall selection.
On top of those draft picks, Plant HS alumni Preston Tucker – Kyle’s older brother – and Mychal Givens made their major league debuts in May and June with the Astros and the Baltimore Orioles, respectively. Givens received the 2008 Jackie Robinson Award as the Perfect Game National High School Player of the Year as part of the festivities at the 2008 PG All-American Classic in San Diego.
As noted, it’s quite a legacy for these Plant HS players to live up to, not only when they’re playing for the Panthers in the spring but now that they’re playing summer ball for Scorpions Tampa 17u with their high school coach, Dennis Braun, running the show.
“That helps us even with the younger kids because they see that and they can say their high school has kids going to the bigs and we want to go there, too” Scorps Tampa 17u 2017 middle-infielder John Shields told PG when asked about Plant’s recent big-league connections. “It helps everybody to see how hard we work and makes everybody want to do the best they can.”
Braun just completed his 12th year as head coach at Plant HS and previously coached with the All-American Prospects organization during the summer. When that group folded, he used the Prospects name for his Plant HS summer team, and then this year became affiliated with Matt Gerber and the highly respected Altamonte Springs-based Orlando Scorpions Baseball organization.
“We get a lot of good players to come in and the program allows each and every one of them to get better,” Braun said of what he has going at Plant. “We’ve had a lot of players move on to college and a couple now have been drafted, but to have two first-rounders drafted in one year will probably never happen again.”
Tampa is the county seat of Hillsborough County, Fla., and the entire area has long been recognized for producing as many college and professional baseball players as anyplace in the country. Steve Garvey, Luis Gonzalez, Dwight Gooden, Tony LaRussa, Al Lopez, Fred McGriff and Gary Sheffield provide a small sampling of the nearly four dozen Tampa natives that have played or managed professionally.
The New York Mets selected Gooden out of Hillsborough High School with the No. 5 overall pick in the first-round of the 1982 MLB June Amateur Draft. He held the distinction of being the Tampa native selected highest in the draft until Plant’s Kyle Tucker matched him a little over a month ago.
“There are a lot of good players (in the county) so the competition is very good,” Braun said. “You’re forced to get better, and if you’re going to be that guy you’re going to be challenged there, then you’re going to have to prove that; I think our county allows the guys that are good players to do that.”
There are certainly some good ones on this Scorpions Tampa 17u squad, and almost all of them attend Plant HS. The top Plant HS senior-to-be (2016) is shortstop Nick Cerelli from Tampa, a University of South Florida commit PG ranks as a top-550 national prospect in his class.
Cerelli had five hits in eight trips (.625) in Tampa 17u’s first three pool-play games – the won their first two before losing Monday – with team-highs of four RBI and four runs scored.
“I always have fun out here at the Perfect Game tournaments just because there is always real good competition,” he said. “There’s a lot of talent out here and being able to see these guys over and over and watch them progress – even the guys playing with you – is a lot of fun.”
Among the other top Plant HS/Scorpions Tampa 17u players – all from Tampa – are Shields, ranked No. 134; 2017 catcher/third baseman Zach Koch, No. 280; 2017 outfielder/infielder/right-hander Davis Bak, No. 388; and 2018 outfielder/left-hander Connor Scott, a U. of Florida commit ranked No. 6 nationally in his class.
Shields said he is frequently asked by players from other high school and travel ball teams if it gets old playing with the same group of guys in both the spring and summer, and he always answers those queries the same: “No way.”
“It’s a lot better because if someone is not doing as well, you know them, you’ve played with them and you kind of know how to help them along,” he said. “Stuff like that – you can’t buy that. It’s going to help us win, and it helps that we know each other, we know the ins-and-outs of everybody on the team, and I love that. I’d rather play with my high school team all summer than with somebody else.”
Braun has created a feeder system at Plant HS that enables him to get youngsters involved with the program when they’re as young as 12- or 13-years-old, and they learn at an early age about the expectations that come with being a part of the Panther program.
“I’m with the same guys all the time – which is a lot of fun – and I get to get used to them,” Cerelli said. “It gets into all of us at some point where we’re really used to each other, and even during high school ball it makes us all feel more comfortable, which is good.
“Understanding each other and having that certain chemistry with each other just gives us that extra boost,” he said. “Having good chemistry with your teammates really helps out a lot.”
Even at a high-profile summer event like the 17u PG BCS Finals, Braun never stops teaching and his players never stop learning. The head coach will even pick out certain games during pool-play when he’ll have the team bunt a little more than normal or do something else along those lines. That helps the players get valuable repetitions in situational baseball during real-time game action.
“I also think it’s important to learn to compete and that’s why we’re out here,” Braun said. “We get to play good teams, we face good pitching – I think that’s very important for them to do – and we get to play every day for a week before they go to the next tournament.”
The Scorpions Tampa 17u just got home from Emerson, Ga., where they finished 3-3 in pool-play at the 17u PG WWBA National Championship. Braun said the team was sluggish at the plate in losing a couple of early games which caused them to miss the playoffs, but felt like they had a little momentum coming into this event.
Playing in back-to-back week-long PG national championship tournaments is also important for the young players because it keeps their competitive juices flowing during the hot summer months, Braun believes. It is certainly a benefit to his program at Plant that he can keep all of his top players together through the summer but he’s not afraid to reach out to players from other Hillsborough County schools to fill pitching and infield position needs – there are six prospects from other schools on this roster – so other high school programs benefit from this summer schedule, as well.
The guys get tired, of course, and they may not do as good a job of eating well and taking care of themselves as they should while on the road, but they learn how to win and perform at a high level under difficult circumstances. It is Braun’s hope these tournament experiences will help the young men prepare for college or professional careers.
“It’s been a good summer for us,” he said. “We’ve got four or five guys that a lot of people like and they’re starting to get offers from, and that’s what it’s all about. (The Scorpions affiliation) has been a good thing and I think it’s brought more people to come and see us play, and once they see we have some good players, that keeps them coming back.
“Joining up with the Scorpions was a good move for us because people look at it and they want to come see us, and I was pretty happy with the number of colleges that came out and saw us play this summer.”
The elite players on this Scorpions Tampa 17u team live to perform in front of important sets of eyes.
“That stuff really gets me going,” Shields sad. “You look around, and the (college) coaches are always talking to Coach Braun and that makes me play harder. Perfect Game is probably one of the most beneficial things I’ve (been involved with) and it’s helped me out a lot.”
The job at hand the rest of this week for Shields and his teammates is to perform at a high enough level that the Scorps Tampa 17u can make a run at the 17u PG BCS Finals national championship. They can dream all they want about one day following their former Plant teammates Kyle Tucker and Jake Woodford into professional ball, but winning this championship is the only thing they can control in the here and now.
“We know we can win it. We’ve won before against these top-notch teams so we know what it takes to be successful,” Cerelli said. Shields was a little more pragmatic.
“Honestly, this is probably the best tournament and some of the best teams that I’ve seen so far (this summer),” he said. “Just getting around all the guys – you see a lot of guys that you’ve seen before from around the country – I just love that. These experiences are unforgettable.”