Crusaders in a star-filled battle

05/13/2014 12:01 AM

05/13/2014 1:17 AM

Call it Star Wars — of the prep baseball variety.

When Coral Springs Christian Academy and Tallahassee’s North Florida Christian meet Wednesday in a Class 3A state semifinal, a projected first-round pick, three Florida State recruits and several other highly touted players will be sharing the same field.

CSCA (23-7), making its first appearance at state, is led by senior right-hander Touki Toussaint, a Vanderbilt recruit who is expected to skip college and go pro because of a fastball that can hit 97 mph. He is 8-2 with a 1.22 ERA in 13 appearances, including 12 starts, and Baseball America considers him first-round material.

NFC (24-4), which last won state in 2011, is led by 6-4 senior left-hander Carson Sands, a Florida State recruit who is 7-1 with a 0.47 ERA. As a freshman in 2011, he earned a complete-game victory in the state final, beating Orangewood Christian, 8-4.

But since Toussaint and Sands both pitched in Saturday’s regional finals, they will probably be saved for a hoped-for Thursday state championship, where they would be throwing on four days of rest.

Not to worry. Both teams have quality alternatives at the ready for Wednesday’s 10 a.m. state semifinal, which is set for JetBlue Park in Fort Myers.

CSCA could use No. 2 starter Eric Hepple, a Central Florida recruit. The senior right-hander is 6-0, 0.64 in 10 games, including eight starts.

NFC has two more FSU recruits — they are committed to the Seminoles but not yet signed — 6-3 junior right-hander Cole Sands (4-1, 1.78) and 6-4 sophomore lefty Cole Ragans (4-1, 0.79).

CSCA Coach Matt Cleveland, whose team won three of four games earlier this season against elite competition at the National High School Invitational in Cary, N.C., doesn’t believe his team will be intimidated by the NFC pitching staff.

“Even though they are committed to Florida State, their kids are still in high school just like our kids,” Cleveland said. “It’s just a matter of having good at-bats and making them work and competing.”

Cleveland, 34, is in his 12th season coaching CSCA. He was a minor-league shortstop in the Kansas City Royals chain — Class A ball — when he got the job with the Crusaders. He was 23 at the time, and the program was just a few years old.

He has since grown the program into a power, winning district titles in each of the past five years. Last season was the first time the Crusaders earned a regional playoff win, and this is their first chance at state glory.

“It’s gratifying that we’ve been able to break through — it’s taken a lot of patience, hard work and belief,” he said. “But I’m not focused on the accomplishment right now. We’re trying to finish the job.”

It would certainly help if the Crusaders continue to hit the way they have in the playoffs so far, where they have averaged 9.8 runs in six games.

Toussaint, even if he doesn’t pitch, is a great athlete who is hitting a hard .340, leading the team in doubles (9), homers (3) and tied for the lead in slugging percentage (.532).

Hepple is hitting .357 with a team-high 28 RBI.

Senior catcher Benito Santiago, son of the former big-league backstop of the same name, is a Tennessee recruit who leads the team in batting average (.416), on-base percentage (.489) and on base plus slugging (1021).

Among the team’s other hitting stars are senior outfielder Chris Bec, a Tennessee recruit; speedy leadoff hitter and defensive star Pemron Burrows, who plays center field and leads the team in triples (3) and runs scored (34); junior shortstop James Buckley; and senior third baseman Cary Boniske, who has a .449 on-base percentage and leads the team with 23 walks.

Pitching depth comes from a trio of right-handers who have banded together to make up for the season-long injury loss of Miami Hurricanes recruit Devin Meyer. The trio includes senior Jeremiah Muhammad, a reliever with a 1.60 ERA who leads the team with 16 appearances; senior Colin Taylor (3-2, 3.68) and junior Ricky Miranda (3-0, 3.57).

TUESDAY’S SCHEDULE

BASEBALL

Region 4-6A final at Pines Flamingo Park: Mater Academy vs. Pines Charter, 7

Region 4-5A final: Archbishop McCarthy at Rockledge, 7

Region 4-2A final: Brito at Zion Lutheran, 4

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