By Kyle LoJacono
Wesley Chapel baseball was not just the class of Pasco County two seasons ago, it was also viewed as one of the powers in the state.
The 2011 squad started the season with 22 straight victories and rolled into districts 25-2, the most wins for a season in the program’s 14-year history. The Wildcats had made the playoffs the previous three years, the last two times as district champs, and were almost a lock to take a run at states.
Wesley Chapel (10-4, 9-2) fell 5-4 to Pasco in the district semifinals. The Wildcats also lost nine seniors, the majority of whom were starters, to graduation.
The young Wildcats lost another one-run game to Pasco in the district quarterfinals last year, but those who are back are ready to start a new playoff streak.
“We’ve gotten to the point where this team now can compete every year,” said Wesley Chapel coach Chuck Yingling. “Do we every game? No, but high school kids don’t do that. We are where we felt we should be. We still play very young. Most of the infield we start are sophomores. We still lack some of that maturity, but we have athletes now.”
Yingling, who led Tampa Catholic to state titles in 1996 and 2001, started the program’s ascension when he took over six years ago and guided the Wildcats to their first playoff berth in 2008. He said they didn’t have the kind of depth he has this year when they made three straight postseasons, especially pitchers.
“After the first two or three pitchers last year we literally had no arms,” Yingling said. “Even when we were winning districts we had three starting pitchers, but nobody after that. Now we have six or eight arms that are really arms, but we’re having to teach them how to pitch and not overreact.”
Leading the staff is senior Chase Ingram, who has a 5-0 record with a 1.05 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 40 innings. The 6-foot-3 righty said the pitching is as good as he’s seen during his time with the program.
“I think this team is very similar to that team that won all those games a few years ago,” Ingram said. “We got Hunter (Robinson), Kyle (Custer) and Tyler (Peck), and those are all senior pitchers. We’re all good pitchers, and I think we’re just as good as a pitching staff as we were a couple years ago.”
Yingling also sees a strong defensive core.
“We are very strong up the middle,” Yingling said. “Right now we’re having K.J. Bierly start at second and Corey Mumaw at shortstop and Michael Jones mixing in. Michael has the strongest glove on our team. Then our two catchers are really solid. We have Brandon McLeod, who was our starter last year until he broke his arm, and he’s done really well. Then we got this freshman Dillon Sink — that’s the real deal. He’s caught a couple games this year, and I can’t believe he’s a freshman.”
The defense has also benefitted from Justin Ortiz. The senior centerfielder had to sit out last year after his family moved from Sunlake’s district during the school year.
“There’s not a better defensive outfielder in the county, and he’s got a laser for an arm,” Yingling said.
The Wildcats are hitting .341 as a team, but have on-base percentage of .452. Yingling said that’s reflective of their focus on taking good at bats and working counts.
The offense got a big boost when slugging first baseman Turner Imhoff (.412, five doubles, 10 RBI) transferred from Pasco this season.
“He’s one of the top RBI guys in the county,” Yingling said.
Imhoff did have to adjust to his new squad.
“I always thought of Wesley Chapel as a good defensive team, and I think we’re playing good defense again this year,” said Imhoff, a junior. “Some nights are better than others, but most nights we keep teams to two or three runs with some shutouts. At Pasco, it was more about hitting.”
The mix has put the Wildcats in the No. 2 seed in next month’s Class 5A-District 8 tournament, trailing Pasco by one game.
Senior first baseman/pitcher Jared Crescentini, who’s older brother Marcus played on the squads that made three straight playoff appearances, attributes the resurgence to Yingling.
“He really expects us to play with perfection, and that’s what we expect too,” Crescentini said. “When we see things that aren’t up to our standards we make sure to work on them.”
Wesley Chapel hosts district rival Fivay April 2 at 7 p.m. The Wildcats play in the 5A-8 tournament at Pasco April 22 to 26, with the title game April 26 at 7 p.m.
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker
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