High School : : Rankings
Monday, February 5, 2018

Potent Patriots debut at No. 1

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Acton family

2018 High School Baseball Preview Content

No. 1 American Heritage Patriots (Plantation, Fla.)

State Association/League:
Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) Class 6A District 15

Head Coach: Bruce Aven (7th season as head coach)

2017 Results: 20-7 overall; 4-0 6A District 15; FHSAA 6A regional quarterfinals

Key Losses: SS Mark Vientos (Mets, 2nd Rnd Draft); RHP Christian Santana (Florida International); RHP Cody Cortelli (Florida International)

Top Returning Players: Sr. CIF Triston Casas (Miami); Sr. LHP Bailey Mantilla (Miami); Sr. INF Cory Acton (Florida); Sr. C/INF Julio Cortez (South Florida); So. OF Enrique Banfield Jr. (Vanderbilt); So. INF Gavin Casas (Vanderbilt)

Key Newcomers: Jr. LHP Ryan Cabarcas (Florida); So. SS Jordan Carrion (Florida); So. INF Gio Ferraro (Miami); Fr. LHP/INF/OF Devin Futrell (Vanderbilt)

Notable Matchups: March 9 at Archbishop McCarthy; March 16 at No. 3 Calvary Christian; March 27-31 vs. National High School Invitational (at Cary, N.C.); April 5 vs. Westminster Christian; April 12 vs. Jupiter; April 17 vs. Dwyer; April 20 vs. Trinity Christian; April 26 vs. Canterbury

                                                                                                 … … …

PERFECT GAME NAMED ITS FIRST HIGH SCHOOL NATIONAL CHAMPION in June of 2011, with the title awarded to Archbishop McCarthy from Southwest Ranches in Broward County, Fla. The PG HS National Championship stayed in Broward County in 2012, when American Heritage High School in Plantation was sitting in the catbird’s seat in the final PG HS Top 50 Rankings.

Over the last five years, the championship was awarded to schools in California (Harvard-Westlake), Louisiana (Barbe), Georgia (Parkview), back to Florida (Venice) and Oklahoma (Shawnee). Will 2018 be the year the PG National Championship returns to Broward County? Get the party started.

When American Heritage opens regular-season play against Park Vista on Feb. 20, it will do so as the No. 1 team in this year’s PG High School Preseason Top 50 Rankings, portending a future that would see seventh-year head coach Bruce Aven’s program winning its second national title in seven years.

That position at the top of the rankings certainly seems justified, with a total of 10 seniors, juniors, sophomores and a freshman already signed with or committed to NCAA Division-I schools (see above).

In his six previous seasons at the school, Aven has been in situations similar to this year where he has a lot of his seniors being looked at by major league scouts and most of his underclassmen being looked at by college recruiters; crowds gather at every practice and every game.

The real top-tier guys are used to it by now – many of the Patriots play summer ball with Richie Palmer and the Elite Squad Baseball organization at heavily scouted PG events – and Aven noted that the added pressure of performing in front of the scouts just doesn’t seem to affect his guys that much.

“They actually enjoy playing baseball so they’re not thinking ahead to what they’re going to be doing next year or having to worry about anything,” outside the program, he told PG last week. “They love coming to the field, they love being out here and they love their teammates and playing together.”

That sounds like a winning formula, and the Patriots look to have the right people in place to make it work. They will be led by a returning core of four seniors who, in turn, will be surrounded by an extremely capable group of outstanding underclass prospects. And it starts with the seniors Triston Casas and Cory Acton.

Casas, a 6-foot-4, 238-pound PG All-American third baseman and two-year standout for Team USA, returns for what promises to be a monster senior season. A Miami signee ranked No. 12 nationally in the class of 2018, Casas hit .446 with four home runs and 18 RBI with a .559 on-base percentage as a junior.

Acton, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound infielder and Florida signee ranked No. 96 nationally, hit .458 with seven home runs and 26 RBI (.549 OBP).

“The beauty of it is, not only are they special players but they’re unselfish players,” Aven said of the two seniors. He told of an instance last summer when everyone associated with the program found out that a senior who was going to be a key part of pitching staff suffered an injury and wouldn’t be able to play this spring, both of them called him and offered to pitch if they were needed.

“If (those guys) are willing to do that, then everybody else just falls in line,” Aven continued. “I don’t have a situation where a kid comes in and says, ‘Coach, I’m a center fielder.’ No, if Triston Casas does it and Corey Acton does it, then the rest of the kids will do it, too.”

Senior catcher/infielder Julio Cortez is a top-500 South Florida recruit who hit .340-2-17 as a junior. Sophomore outfielder Enrique Bradfield Jr. hit .293 and posted a .411 on-base percentage while stealing 16 bases as a freshman in 2017; he has committed to Vanderbilt. Sophomore infielder Gavin Casas – Triston’s younger brother – is another Vandy commit who is ranked No. 33 in the class of 2020 and who will be counted on to contribute.

Aven said he has up to seven pitchers at his disposal, led by senior left-hander Bailey Mantilla (3-2, 2.13 ERA, 58 Ks, 42 IP).  A couple of other top arms belong to junior left-hander Ryan Cabarcas – a Florida commit ranked No. 125 – and sophomore right-hander Jordan Carrion (Florida, No. 35). Converted outfielder Alex Rodriguez will also be asked to work from the mound.

The soon to be 46-year-old Aven was an outfielder who played parts of five seasons (’97, ’99-’02) in the big leagues with the Dodgers, Indians, Pirates and Marlins; the Indians drafted him in the 30th round of 1994 MLB Draft out of Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.

Having played the game at a high level for many years and having been on several different teams as both a player and a coach, Aven can speak knowledgably and sincerely to his young players about a variety of experiences. He’s told this group that every now and then he’s run across a team that is special, and he feels that way about this year’s Patriots: they’re just special.

“We’re going to lose a game somewhere along the road, but our kids are going to back each other up,” he said. “We’re going to have guys – even the best guys – who are going to strikeout in key situations, but they’ll back each other up; there’s no jealousy out here. The support, the commitment to play the game and to have fun playing the game, that’s what’s special about these kids.

“I don’t see selfishness,” he continued. “I see the best player on the team working with a guy who needs work and teaching him something while they’re out there on the same field.”

Aven remembered back to the fall when the PG All-American Casas and the top prospect Acton were out on the field taking ground balls with eighth-graders, freshmen and sophomores, working to make everyone a little bit better. It was, and continues to be, a great thing for a head coach to see from his top-of-the-line, older players.

And as for working with and mentoring his young top prospects, Aven is sort of learning as he goes along. He noted that coaches at elite high school programs like the one he oversees at American Heritage deal with so much more than his coaches at West Orange-Cove HS in Orange, Texas, had to deal with back in his teenage years.

As an example, Aven structures his fall program a certain way so that his players can be involved in PG’s top fall WWBA tournaments; he feels it’s important for them to experience those events and the exposure they bring. It can become a juggling act, to be sure, and Aven said he sometimes feels like more of an advisor to his players than a head coach.

He tries to educate them about the opportunities that are out there, while also making sure they understand that ballplayers – that young men, really – all develop at different rates. Just because you might not be a starter on the high school team or get selected to be a part of a premier travel ball program when you’re a sophomore isn’t the end of the world. Those things could very well happen when you’re a junior or a senior.

“You’re more of a mentor to them as a father-figure and a coach, and you’re trying to help them become a better person,” Aven said. “The baseball will take care of itself, because this game won’t let you fake it. If you don’t like it and you play every single day, you’ll know right off the bat what you should do; you either love it or you don’t.”

The American Heritage program has a lot of things in common with a college program. The facilities and the staff are first-rate – the baseball team has its own strength and conditioning coach – and the administration and the student body are very supportive.

“When you come out here, everything is here for you,” Aven said. “You just have to want to do it because what I can’t do is make you want to do it. Right now, what’s good about (the program) is that we just have a bunch of passionate, committed kids, and I tell them that every day you need to go out and play the best you can. Don’t worry about anything else and just focus on the game.”

Today, it will be announced that four Broward County schools – both public and private – are included in the PG High School Preseason Top 50 Rankings. No. 20 Calvary Christian (Fort Lauderdale), No. 32 Marjory Stoneman Douglas (Parkland) and No. 42 North Broward Prep (Coconut Creek) will join No. 1 American Heritage.

The record books tell us that Aven was in his first year on the job at AHHS when the Patriots were awarded the 2012 PG HS National Championship after first winning the FHSAA Class 5A state championship. One of the key members of that 2012 Patriots’ team was junior catcher Zack Collins, a 2012 PG All-American.

On the way to the championship game that year, American Heritage had to first get past a strong Tampa Jesuit team in the semifinals. The Patriots won that contest, 3-0, getting the best of 2011 PG All-American and current member of the World Champion Houston Astros’ starting rotation Lance McCullers in the process.

There will be other high hurdles to clear this season if certain goals are to be met, and Aven won’t talk to his team about starting out the season as the country’s No. 1-ranked team; he certainly won’t talk about winning another national championship.

“I talk about the process,” he said. “I tell them that the most talented teams don’t always win a championship. It’s the teams that play the best and the teams that execute and make the plays when its time to make the plays and gets the hits when its time to get the hits and take a walk when its time to take a walk.

“Focus on being a great baseball player, and let’s look at your strengths and let’s look at your weaknesses; let’s keep improving.”

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