Mull: Loaded with talent, Canterbury baseball has high hopes

Behind a strong lineup and powerful pitching, Canterbury is a safe pick to contend for a Class 3A state championship.

Behind a strong lineup and powerful pitching, Canterbury is a safe pick to contend for a Class 3A state championship.

Every spring, we’re blessed with a lot of good baseball in Southwest Florida, from the spring training homes of the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox, to the local diamonds that feature high school teams.

But as far as high schools are concerned, the record books don’t exactly back up that argument.

Before Bishop Verot won Lee County’s first baseball championship in 1994, we had just two local schools reach the state title game since the FHSAA began record keeping in 1922.

Just two.

And even today, we only have two championships to our name, both of which are tied to Bishop Verot, which earned its next title in 2011. Only Riverdale in 2008 and Estero in 2013 have reached the final game of the season.

Well, this should be the year Lee County adds another champion.

Canterbury (12-0) is as powerful as any high school team in Class 3A. They have as many as six Division-I players on their roster, including Clemson commit Sam Keating, Vanderbilt commit Cooper Swanson and FGCU commit Tyler Shuck.

Plus, they have a tried-and-true redemption tale going. A year ago, the Cougars lost 4-2 to Miami Westminster in the Class 3A semifinals, ending their season one game away from the state finals.

Canterbury head coach Frank Turco has been to the state championship series twice — he was the head coach of Estero when it made its run in 2013 — and he’s come away empty both times. Which proves the point that it’s really, really hard to win. He’s been to the playoffs 13 times.

This season presents his next best shot of reaching the pinnacle.

“I’m looking forward to facing adversity and seeing how we can handle it,” said Turco, whose team went 22-5-1 last season.

So far, it’s been smooth sailing through District 3A-6. The Cougars, who are on pace to have their third straight 20-win season, are a perfect 11-0 in the district.

Canterbury again sets sights on JetBlue

In every single scalable category from a season ago, the team has either raised the bar or significantly improved. We’re talking batting average (.391), on-base percentage (.514), earned run average (0.52) and fielding percentage (.972).

The thing is, they don’t even play like a power. The Cougars have 41 stolen bases. Sacrifice bunts? Over two handfuls. Turco had this plan early on that stressed fundamentals over moonshot offense.

“Here’s the whole idea,” he said. “When you stay short, good things happen. When you play small, and when you bunt, hit the next guy over and play the situation, you’ll get them to understand what needs to be done to win.

“Good bat control, it makes kids who are good even better,” he added. “And that’s what I’ve seen. They’ve bought into playing short. I’m watching balls explode off their bats.”

The Cougars still have big bats. After belting eight home runs last season, many of them late in the season and during crucial points, the Cougars already have seven through 12 games, and six players have more than 10 RBI.

Keating, Shuck and Bryan Eberle have combined to throw 41 innings of nearly impeccable work, as the trio has given up just two runs, has struck out 59 batters and yielded just 13 walks.

Some coaches might worry about complacency when talent is at such a premium.

Yet, Turco and his coaching staff have enough experience to challenge this team. Of the six assistant coaches on the squad, three have played minor league baseball.

Turco back loaded his schedule with dates against Calvary Christian (9-5), Cardinal Mooney (13-1), Saint Stephen’s Episcopal (8-7) and Estero (10-4) to better serve his team.

Canterbury can’t drum up offense in state semifinal

And one of the Cougars’ last games, in fact, is being played at FGCU’s baseball complex on April 13 against IMG Academy Gray. Ultimately, it could serve as a great primer for the Class 3A baseball championships, which are being played at JetBlue Park in May.

“We’re going to see what we’re made of in those last weeks,” said Turco. “The nice thing, though, is that we’re going to go in and have fun with it. They’re not giving away any state championships for the next two weeks. So it can give us coaches some time to fix what’s lacking.”

Maybe Canterbury won’t go undefeated to finish the regular season, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they did, either.

Of any team in Lee County that has the potential to break the drought of winning a state championship — other than Bishop Verot — you would have to point to these guys.

Because while they do have talent, it’s about more than that, too.

“They want to end the season as the best, someway, somehow,” Turco said. “If it means a state championship, that’d be outstanding.”

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