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District 16-5A Preview: New Coaches The Theme At The Top

Playing top competition is a key to having success come playoff time in high school baseball, but for Pompano and American Heritage, being moved into a different district this season may not be such a bad thing.

The Golden Tornadoes and Patriots have spent the past couple of seasons doing battle in one of the toughest districts in the state. While former district rivals Coral Springs Charter, Pine Crest, and North Broward Prep have moved up one class to 4A, Pompano and American Heritage jump two classes to 5A. Their new district includes Dillard and Hallandale, which opens the door for Pompano and Heritage to become the top rivalry in the district.

Here is a preview of District 16-5A.

New Heritage head coach Bruce Aven has the full attention of his Patriots team.

American Heritage Patriots
2011 Record: 20-9
Head Coach: Bruce Aven
Key Returners: Dallas Perez (P, So.), Brandon Lopez (SS, Sr.), Brandon Diaz (2B, Sr.), Esteban Puerta (OF, Sr.), Alex Seibold (P, Sr.), David Villar (1B, Fr.)
Newcomers to Watch: Zach Collins (C, Jr.), Danny Zardon (3B, Jr.), Domenick Mancini (P, Sr.)
Team Strengths: Pitching, offense, speed

American Heritage joins Pompano as two teams in the district that have gone through a coaching change last summer. The Patriots let go of longtime coach Todd Fitz-Gerald and brought in former Florida Marlin Bruce Aven to run the show this season. Aven takes over a team that won the district title last year and is loaded with talent.

The Patriots’ offense should have no problem scoring runs this season. Returning to the lineup are Brandon Lopez (.456), Brandon Diaz (.425) and Esteban Puerta (13 HRs). Throw in transfers Zardon (.453) and Collins (.379), and what you get is the possibility of one of the most potent offenses in the state.

Despite the potential, Aven understands that this group is a work in progress. With several transfers and a new coach, the adjustment period has been brief. The Patriots played only a handful of games together in the fall, and that has left Aven and his staff working hard this spring to institute a new program.

“We’re focused on the process right now,” Aven said. “That’s our short-term goal. Long term, obviously we want a state championship, but I’m not worried about much past that. I care about making sure these guys learn to play the game right, and what we are focused on is bringing them together as a team. We have a lot of talent, but when I got here, I didn’t feel like we had a team. I felt like we had a lot of great players but not a team. Right now, I’m starting to feel like we are more of a team.”

Contributing to that team concept will be three powerful arms on the mound. Alex Seibold returns as the team’s ace after posting an ERA of 2.07 in 44 innings last season. Domenick Mancini comes over from Cypress Bay to slot in behind Seibold. Last year for the Lightning, Mancini delivered 50.1 innings as the workhorse of the Cypress Bay staff, posting a 3.06 ERA along the way. The duo will be joined by sophomore Dallas Perez.

As for leadership, the Patriots have plenty of players who could fill the role, but Aven has leaned most heavily on Lopez. The shortstop has taken to the leader role and believes that this team could be special.

“We are very motivated to get back to states,” Lopez said. “For us seniors, we lost our freshman year at states, and we haven’t been back since. That gives us a lot of motivation to get back there in our last chance.”

Many of the Heritage players talked about a more intense approach this season. They cite the difference as one that comes from their head coach.

“Last year, it was more laid back, Coach Fitz (Fitz-Gerald) was more laid back,” Diaz said. “Coach Bruce (Aven) is more up-tempo in practice, and the intensity is up more so far this season.”

Pompano Beach Golden Tornadoes

2011 Record: 14-6
Head Coach: Ryan Combs
Key Returners: Kenny Harrell (SS, Sr.), Allen Benzenhafer (C, Sr.), Nick Delgado (CF, Sr.), DJ Fenstermaker (RHP, Sr.), JJ Rodriguez (OF, Sr.), Matt Fengler (1B, Jr.), Bobby Adkins (RHP, Sr.), Tyler Keller (LHP, Jr.), Shaw Pinnell (2B, Jr.)
Newcomers to Watch: Keenan Holliday (DH, Sr.)
Team Strengths: Pitching, defense, experience
Team Weaknesses: Power in the middle

Our season will be a success if….

“Our guys play to their level. “

The Golden Tornadoes are looking to keep the momentum of a solid 2011 season and a good showing in the fall as they get set to begin their 2012 campaign.

Last year, Pompano had to worry about four teams in its district standing in its way of the postseason. With the district realignments, only one of those teams — American Heritage — remains a hurdle the Golden Tornadoes will need to clear.

To get past Heritage, Pompano, which is senior-heavy this year, will rely on the experience the team has built over the past few years as well as solid pitching and strong defense, particularly up the middle.

Three main pitchers return this season — senior right-handers DJ Fenstermaker and Bobby Adkins, and junior lefty Tyler Keller. Fenstermaker went 3-2 with 33 strikeouts in 25 innings last season, and Keller struck out 27 in 32.1 innings while going 4-0. Adkins pitched only 13.1 innings, but he struck out 16 and won two games.

Offensively, some of the team’s heavy hitters from last year graduated, but Matt Fengler (.340 last year) and Kenny Harrell (.328) will be among the big bats this year. Overall, lack of power in the middle is something the Tornadoes will have to overcome.

“We have a good contact and gap-to-gap hitting team, but we don’t have that big power-hitting bat in the middle,” coach Ryan Combs said.

The team also will have to play more consistently, Combs said.

“We had a tendency in the fall to play to the level of our competition, and we need to be able to bring the same intensity night in and night out,” he said.

Combs, who was chosen to replace veteran coach George Petik after Petik retired after last season, is hoping to bring stability to a program that has been through coaching changes in the past couple of years.

This team has been through a lot having had different coaches the past three years, but this group is ready to challenge the best in the county,” Combs said. “We just need to play like it.”

Also in District:

2011 Record: 3-16

2011 Record: 3-17

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