The Catholic High baseball team needs no serious introduction.
After winning two consecutive state titles and being voted 2013 national champions by multiple publications, the Crusaders are a contender for one of the greatest prep teams in Pensacola area history.
But that doesn’t mean the Crusaders are penciling themselves in for another trip to Fort Myers for the state tournament.
Catholic coach Richard LaBounty knows the challenges of the season will start much closer to home, beginning in district play.
“Marianna was the last team to beat us. They have a good ball team, but they didn’t throw their best pitcher against us. The district is full of very good pitching,” LaBounty said of District 1-4A, which now includes West Florida High. “I think the pitching is going to be very tough. Good pitching beats good hitting every day, and it’s a pitching-heavy district.”
But that doesn’t mean the Crusaders don’t have plenty of good hitting.
Among that talent is outfielder-turned-third baseman turned catcher Cody Henry. The senior, who has signed to play baseball at Alabama next season, batted .400 with 12 doubles and four home runs in 2013.
He’s joined by the big bat of first baseman Evans Bozeman. The junior batted .402 with nine doubles and seven home runs during his sophomore year.
And while the Crusaders’ bats aren’t in question this season, the team will be looking to young arms on the mound.
The No. 1 starter from the 2013 team, Avery Geyer, now is at Mississippi State. The No. 2, Cooper Jones, is at Southern Miss.
Zane Gill, who was 2-0 in three starts last season, will serve as Catholic’s top starter this season, and so far, he’s living up to the No. 1 role.
Through two starts, Gill hasn’t allowed a hit, while striking out eight and walking only two. His second district start should come March 7 against West Florida, Catholic’s first district foe from Escambia County since sharing a district with Northview in 2009.
The Jaguars had a history of success in District 1-5A, advancing to the region finals in 2012.
“We’re excited to be able to play West Florida,” Catholic coach Richard LaBounty said. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve accomplished.
“We take on all comers. Anybody that wants to play us, we certainly want to play them. We don’t fear anybody. I’m certainly looking forward to playing West Florida because it will create a lot of interest and a big turnout.”
Catholic had 38 consecutive wins heading into this week and will seek their next victory today when it hosts Pine Forest.
“Our team is really laid back,” LaBounty said. “We enjoy each other’s company, and we like competing together. To win as many games as we did last year, and to win back-to-back (state titles) … we are very blessed to have talented, determined athletes. That’s a rare combination. They never take a day off.”
The 2014 season brings a completely new look for District 1-7A.
The Tate Aggies and Navarre Raiders, moving up from 1-6A, will join Niceville, Crestview and Fort Walton Beach.
Crestview, the defending District 2-6A champion, will look to repeat as champ in the new classification while 1-6A runner up Tate will try to improve on last season.
Navarre and Tate may be gone, but it still will be business as usual for the competitive teams in District 1-6A.
“I think everything’s going to be the norm,” Washington coach Nate Espy said. “Obviously, Tate and Navarre were two tough ones, but you have five other teams now. Every game is going to be difficult. You have to have enough pitching to get through those two game weeks.”
The Pace Patriots in particular have built a reputation as a powerhouse in 1-6A.
In the past eight seasons, Pace has won the state title twice, the region title five times, the district title six times and amde five state tournament appearances.
After going the distance and winning the title in 2012, the Patriots won the district title in 2013 but fell during the region tournament.
“Pace has set the standard for this area as far as our class is concerned,” Espy said. “As far as our class, Pace is the team that until you can knock them off, they’re the favorite.”
Last season, Gulf Breeze finished as the District 1-5A runner-up before advancing to the region title game where the Dolphins were edged by Wakulla, 3-2.
This year, with nine seniors, Gulf Breeze will attempt to go even further.
The biggest challenges for the Dolphins could be defending District 1-5A champ Rutherford, which defeated Gulf Breeze 8-5 in last season’s district title game.
Pensacola Christian Academy finds itself in a unique situation this season as one half of 1-3A’s two-team district.
The Warriors only district opponent this season is Rocky Bayou Christian, guaranteeing both teams a spot in the region tournament.
That means the regular-season meetings between both teams will hold a greater importance, with the winner of the series hosting the opponent in the district championship game.
The Central Jaguars are gunning for a title.
The Jaguars squad finished the 2013 season as the District 1-A runner-up to Paxton.
A young Central team that includes just two seniors and four juniors will look to dethrone the Bobcats in the postseason this year.
It’s an old group with a new title.
Jay and Northview will continue to battle Baker, Chipley, Freeport and Holmes County, but this year the group is District 3-1A, not 2-1A.
After advancing to the state semifinals, defending district and region champion Holmes County could be the team to beat again this season, although Northview will be looking for a measure of revenge after falling in both of those championship meetings.