By Kyle LoJacono
Wiregrass Ranch has been one of the area’s most consistent baseball teams the last four years.
The Bulls (9-2, 3-1) have averaged 19 wins with no more than nine losses per season during that span, but a playoff berth has eluded the seventh-year program.
The 2013 squad isn’t hiding its intentions of getting beyond the Class 7A-District 9 tournament.
“In the locker room that’s all we talk about,” said junior shortstop Mike Campoamor, a Furman University commit. “We’re definitely looking to get past districts.”
Fourth-year Wiregrass Ranch coach Jeff Swymer said a playoff berth is a real possibility with the program’s steady growth, but added that nothing comes easy in 7A-9.
The league includes current No. 1 seed Steinbrenner (11-1), defending district champion Gaither (6-6) and Freedom (3-10), which beat the Bulls last year in the 7A-9 semifinals.
“We moved into a tougher district last year, and that really helped our growth to compete with those Hillsborough teams,” Swymer said. “It gave the kids a lot of confidence that we can play with teams that have been around for awhile; teams that are based out of Tampa that are, supposedly, better than Pasco County, and we’ve held our own.”
The squad has jumped out to its traditional strong start despite graduating six seniors from last year. Principle among the departures are outfielder Michael Barrone (.338, 22 runs, 15 RBI*) and No. 1 pitcher Ryan Kopenski (8-3, 1.58 ERA*).
The Bulls have been able to largely replace the offense with a .382 team batting average and .472 on base percentage.
Wiregrass Ranch has six players hitting better than .400, including Campoamor (.533, 12 RBI, 12 runs, seven doubles), junior pitcher/third baseman Zach Drury (.469, 17 RBI), sophomore outfielder/pitcher Austin Drury (.450, 17 runs, nine RBI) and senior center fielder Marcus Guzman (.417, 13 runs, 10 RBI).
“We all knew we could swing it,” Guzman said. “Coach had us very prepared from the fall tournaments, so I thought we could do this.”
Swymer said he’s a bit surprised by the hitting so far.
“We’re hitting better than I thought we would,” Swymer said. “We need a little bit more consistency, but I like where our bats are at.”
Swymer said Austin, Zach’s brother, has added a lot of speed as the leadoff hitter.
“When I started I just wanted to get into the lineup,” Austin said. “I didn’t think I’d be the leadoff hitter from Day 1. … We have really good hitters all over, and that really makes my job easier. I just have to get on, and I know they’re going to hit me in.”
Swymer is still looking for some answers from his pitching staff.
“The biggest challenge is finding the replacement for Ryan,” Swymer said. “We knew Zach could throw hard, but what can he do as a pitcher and with his secondary pitches? He’s done well and progressed. He still relies on his fastball to throw it by guys, but he’s getting better. The big thing is finding that guy behind him. We really don’t have a No. 2. We’ve got guys who have starts, but nobody has been that guy. We’ve had to hit our way to a lot of victories.”
Zach (4-1, 0.27 ERA, 26 innings, 53 strikeouts) said he learned a lot from Kopenski.
“He was a true leader,” Zach said. “He led this whole team. He’s everything you should be as a No. 1 pitcher and team captain. As a pitcher, he showed me if you throw strikes you can get it done. You don’t need an overpowering fastball, but if you do it helps.”
Zach has established himself as the No. 1 by working on his secondary pitches.
“My curveball has gotten much better, and I’m still working on my change-up,” Zach said. “I feel with my curveball now I have two primary pitches.”
Sophomore catcher Alex Goebel (.333) said he’s started to see development in the pitching staff.
“Zach has gained so much more momentum with his fastball, and his curveball looks great,” Goebel said. “I see Ryan (Girard) improving every day, and then Austin is getting more control from the left side. We’re going to need more than one pitcher to get out of districts, so hopefully they keep improving.”
The 7A-9 tournament is at Gaither April 22 to 25, with the title game April 25 at 7 p.m.
Wiregrass Ranch plays at district rivals Gaither April 19 and Steinbrenner April 22. Both games start at 7 p.m.
*Last year’s stats
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker
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