Gabriel Cruz caught every pitch from former South Dade ace Erik Manoah as he delivered one clutch pitching performance after another in the 2014 postseason.
The result was the Bucs’ first state championship.
Cruz, now a senior, will be catching Manoah’s brother Alek, a West Virginia University signee who headlines a talented roster that hopes to deliver another state crown to South Dade this season.
“With the talent we have it’s one of the best teams we’ve ever had on paper,” Cruz said. “But we know you don’t win championships on paper. It’s just as much motivation having a target on our backs as it was when we were underdogs two years ago.”
South Dade opens the season Tuesday as the favorite to come out of Miami-Dade County and try to secure its second state title in three seasons.
Cruz, who hit .528 as a junior and signed with Bryant University in November, is the backstop for one of the most talent-rich teams in the county. It will be his job to manage a deep pitching staff capable of sending the Bucs back to the state tournament in Fort Myers this May.
“We have great team chemistry and depth in every aspect and every position,” Cruz said.
Manoah, an Under Armour All-American, will play first base when he’s not pitching. He hit .430 with three home runs and 27 RBI last season and headlines the rotation that was bolstered with the arrival of senior Christopher Gomez, a transfer from Varela that went 5-3 with a 1.35 ERA last season.
Gomez signed with the University of Pittsburgh in the fall during a ceremony in which four of the team’s top seniors signed with Division-I colleges.
Manoah has his college status secure, but he has the potential to play pro ball as he is considered a potential high draft selection. Manoah’s fastball was clocked at 96 mph over the summer and with his 6-6, 255-pound frame, he’s become an attractive prospect to major-league scouts.
“This is a special group that’s very talented and I think they can do well,” South Dade coach Fred Burnside said. “We have great potential and we have a legitimate shot, but it has to come together. We have to make it happen in practice and those guys have to set the bar.”
Senior Kendrick Pico, who was used predominantly in the later innings last season, figures to play a more pivotal role this season. Pico pitched well against some of the county’s better teams and finished with a 2.35 ERA and saved three games.
“We’ve been together for three or four years now and we won a state championship together,” Manoah said. “We know we have a target on our back, but we’re ready for it and I think we know how to handle it.”
“You can’t just win on pure talent. The ball has to roll your way. But I think this team can be pretty special.”
In addition to Cruz’s power, South Dade can hit the ball up and down a balanced lineup.
Senior third baseman Danny Vaughan hit .329 last season and is one of the team’s best defenders. Vaughan signed with Charleston Southern. Another senior in the infield, shortstop Willie Escala, hit .377 last season and scored 26 runs. Escala should bring plenty of speed on the base paths.
The 2014 season was special for Burnside, who won his first state title that season and is entering his 33rd season as a coach in Miami-Dade County.
Burnside has had his share of talented teams over the years and knows the key for South Dade making that talent translate to the field is preparation and focus in the latter months of the season.
“Every season has ups and downs so you want to be playing your best come May,” Burnside said. “We have some pitching depth, and if we’re swinging the bats well come April and peaking after that, we should be in good shape.”
Monday: Regular season began.
Through Saturday: Adidas Diamond Classic at Florida Christian.
Through Wednesday: Falcon Challenge at Flanagan.
Feb. 25-27: Georgia-Florida Challenge in Valdosta, Georgia.
March 10-12: Tournament of Champions in Jacksonville.
March 21-26: Spring break tournaments.
April 18-21: GMAC championship.
April 27: Class 9A-5A regional quarterfinals.
April 28: Class 4A-1A regional semifinals.
May 3: Class 4A-1A regional finals; Class 9A-5A regional semifinals.
May 10: Class 9A-5A regional finals.
May 11-14, 18-21: State final four in Fort Myers.
2015 STATE CHAMPIONS
Class 8A: Miami Columbus; 7A: Oviedo; 6A: Venice; 5A: Southwest Ranches Archbishop McCarthy; 4A: Jacksonville Trinity Christian; 3A: Miami Westminster Christian; 2A: Brito Miami Private; 1A: Williston.
TOP RETURNING PLAYERS
P Pablo Arevalo, Belen Jesuit, Sr.; P Chris Gomez, South Dade, Sr.; P Tyler Perez, Mater Academy, Sr.; P Luis Touron, Gulliver, Jr.; P Javy Valdes, Gulliver, Sr.; 1B Alek Manoah, South Dade, Sr.; INF Brandon Chinea, Florida Christian, Sr.; SS Jeter Downs, SLAM, Jr.; SS Jorge Arenas, Monsignor Pace, Sr.; 3B Raymond Gil, Gulliver, Jr.; C Gabe Cruz, South Dade, Sr.; C-DH Jose Garcia, SLAM, Jr.; OF Onelio Perdomo, Brito, Jr.; OF Ruben Someillan, Florida Christian, Sr.; OF Gio Soto, Gulliver, Sr.; OF Gabe Rivera, Columbus, Jr. Others to watch: P: Nelson Alvarez, Braddock, Sr.; Dylan Cloonan, Westminster Christian, Jr.; Christian Coipel, Florida Christian, Sr.; Christopher Gomez, South Dade, Sr.; Albert Maury, Belen Jesuit, Sr.; Andres Perez, Terra, Sr.; Kendrick Pico, South Dade, Sr.; Chris Rodriguez, Monsignor Pace, Sr.; Tyler Santana, Coral Gables, Sr.; 2B: Alex Rodriguez, Mater Academy, Sr.; SS: Mike Navarette, Columbus, Sr.; Freddy Zamora, Killian, Jr.; 3B: Ozzie Millet, Terra, Sr.; Andres Santana, SLAM, Jr.; INF: Alex Erro, Gulliver, Sr.; Blake Miller, Palmer Trinity, Sr.; Christian Torres, Miami High, Sr.; C: Robert Fabelo, Florida Christian, Sr.; George Fernandez, La Salle, Sr.; Matt Fernandez, Westwood Christian, Sr.; Pedro Pages, Gulliver, Sr.; Andres Sanchez, Monsignor Pace, Jr.; Jake Zarello, Westminster Christian, Sr.; OF: Christian Del Castillo, Belen, Sr.; Elijah Eusebio, Coral Gables, Sr.; Yasel Fabra, Doral, Sr.; Christian Martin, Florida Christian, Sr.; Hernen Sardinas, Columbus, Sr.; Luis Valbuena, Doral, Sr.; UT: Robert Pena, Reagan, So.
PRESEASON TOP 10
1. South Dade; 2. Gulliver; 3. Columbus; 4. Florida Christian; 5. Westminster Christian; 6. Killian; 7. Mater Academy; 8. Belen Jesuit; 9. Doral Academy; 10. SLAM Academy.
Under consideration: Terra, Coral Gables, Monsignor Pace, Brito.
Note: For complete team-by-team outlooks, visit the online version of this story at www.miamiherald.com/high-schools
1. SOUTH DADE (Coach Fred Burnside, 7th year at SD, 25th overall, 484-122). Last year: 19-7 (Regional semifinalist). Top players: C Gabriel Cruz, Sr.; 1B-RHP Alek Manoah, Sr.; RHP Christopher Gomez, Sr.; 3B Danny Vaughan, Sr.; P Kendrick Pico, Sr.; SS Willie Escala, Jr.
2. COLUMBUS (Coach Joe Weber, 21st year, 460-152). Last year: 27-4 (State champions). Top players: OF Hernen Sardinas, Sr.; OF Gabe Rivera, Jr.; SS Mike Navarrete, Sr.; LHP Andy Arguelles, Sr.; RHP Jose Machado, Sr.; 1B Danny Bello, Sr.
3. CORAL GABLES (Coach Phillip Wisser, 9th year at CG, 12th overall, 177-106). Last year: 18-7 (Regional quarterfinalist). Top players: RHP Tyler Santana, Sr.; OF-1B Elijah Eusebio, Sr.; 3B Jordan Morina, Sr.; OF David Webel, Sr.; UTL David Atkins, Sr.
4. BRADDOCK (Coach Tony Casas, 1st year at BR, 5th overall). Last year: 15-9. Top players: RHP Nelson Alvarez, Sr.; 1B Miguel Rivera, Jr.; INF Jean Martinez, Sr.; RHP Ossie Fernandez, Sr.; C Evan Valverde, Sr.; INF Yandy Morales, So.
5. PALMETTO (Coach Danny Smith, 5th year, 63-33). Last year: 15-9. Top players: C Carl Heldt, Sr.; OF-P Keaton Zargham, Sr.; SS-P Victor Valderrama, So.; 1B-C Brandon Brookins, Sr.
6. MIAMI HIGH (Coach Francisco Suarez, 14th year, 151-167). Last year: 17-9 (Regional quarterfinalist). Top players: SS-3B Christian Torres, Sr.; C Oney Pino, Sr.; 2B Gustavo Miranda, Sr.; SS-3B Manny Garcia, Jr.; INF Jordan Ibarra, Sr.; P Jose Barrios, Sr.
7. FERGUSON (Coach Daniel Barnard, 1st year). Last year: 9-15. Top players: P Jonathan Menendez, Sr.; C-1B Alexander Soto, Sr.
8. SOUTHWEST (Coach Josy Torres, 13th year at SW, 15th overall). Last year: 11-12. Top players: CF-P Jason Grana, Sr.; C Pablo Mendez, Sr.; 2B Danny Cruz, So.
9. CORAL PARK (Coach Juan Carnicero, 3rd year, 22-23). Last year: 8-14. Top players: INF Brandon Gomis, Sr.; C Erik Estevez, Jr.; INF Erwin Hernandez, Jr.; P Antony Vazquez, Sr.; INF Paul Castillo, Sr.; OF Jose Rollins, Sr.
10. CORAL REEF (Coach Tony Meilan, 2nd year at CR, 13th overall). Last year: 5-17. Top players: P Johnny Stathopulos, Sr.; INF Michael Sanchez, Sr.; INF Markel Arnaiz, Sr.; C Nate Rosa, Sr.; OF-P Pedro Sanchez, Sr.; P Ferny Marquez, Sr.
1. REAGAN (Coach Rafael Mesa III, 2nd year, 12-10). Last year: 12-10. Top players: 2B Rafael Rodriguez, Sr.; 3B Christian De Los Santos, Sr.; SS Julio Creazzola, Sr.; SS-P-OF Robert Pena, So.; OF-C Benjamin Meza, Jr.; OF Felix Reyes, Jr.
2. MATER ACADEMY (Coach Michael DiRosa, 3rd year, 38-18). Last year: 18-10 (State semifinalist). Top players: OF-P Tyler Perez, Sr.; INF Alex Rodriguez, Sr.; P Miguel Ruiz, Jr.
1. BELEN JESUIT (Coach Jerry Albert, 5th year at Bel, 17th overall, 250-172). Last year: 14-12. Top players: P Pablo Arevalo, Sr.; P Albert Maury, Sr.; CF Christian Del Castillo, Sr.; OF Alex Falla, Sr.; SS C.J. Vazquez, Jr.; P Gabe Gonzalez, Sr.
2. TERRA (Coach Jesse Fernandez, 1st year). Last year: 19-6. Top players: LHP Joe Sanchez, Jr.; 3B Ozzie Millet, Sr.; RHP Andres Perez, Sr.; 2B Alec Ulloa, Sr.
3. DORAL ACADEMY (Coach Ralph Suarez, 2nd year at DOR, 19th overall, 414-117-8). Last year: 20-8 (Regional semifinalist). Top players: OF Luis Valbuena, Sr.; OF Yasel Fabra, Sr.; 3B-P Brian Perez, Jr.; C-1B Christopher "C.J." Calero, So.; 2B Michael Marin, So.; P Oscar Trujillo, Jr.
1. MOURNING (Coach Ed Bonilla, 5th year at ATM, 8th overall, 39-56). Last year: 12-12. Top players: P Brandon Rios, Sr.; OF-P Marcel Guardarrama, Sr.; INF-P Jim Varona, Jr.; C Max Liff, Jr.
2. NMB (Coach Alex Rodriguez, 4th year at NMB, 11th overall, 28-45). Last year: 8-12. Top players: C-P Eliakin Brown, Sr.; INF-P Joseph Ciccia, Jr.; INF-P Jesus Morel, Sr.
3. CAROL CITY (Coach Randy Rodriguez, 3rd year, 0-25). Last year: 0-15. Top players: 2B-P James Falmer, Sr.; 3B-C Brian Hernandez, Jr.; 1B-P Joshua Williams, Sr.; SS-P Ayeobele Randolph, Sr.; C Theron Peterson, Jr.; 3B-1B Qwami Lofter, Jr.
1. GULLIVER (Coach Manny Crespo, 1st year). Last year: 23-7 (State semifinalist). Top players: RF Gio Soto, Sr.; C Pedro Pages, Sr.; INF-P Javier Valdes, Sr.; P Robert Touron, Jr.; 3B Raymond Gil, Jr.; INF Alex Erro, Sr.
2. MONSIGNOR PACE (Coach Tom Duffin, 18th year, 329-130). Last year: 16-9. Top players: SS Jorge Arenas, Sr.; LHP Chris Rodriguez, Sr.; LHP Nick Fusco, Jr.; C Andres Sanchez, Jr.; LHP-OF Manny Rodriguez, Jr.; RHP John Merrill, Sr.
3. LA SALLE (Coach Hernan Adames, 2nd year year at LaS). Last year: 12-13. Top players: C George Fernandez, Sr.; 3B-1B Santos Grande, Jr.; RHP Jacob Perea, Jr.; RHP Joshua Leon, Jr.; RHP Gabriel Partridge, So.; CF Carlos Quintana, Sr.
1. FLORIDA CHRISTIAN (Coach Chris Brigman, 4th year, 53-29). Last year: 15-10. Top players: OF Ruben Someillan, Sr.; P-OF Christian Coipel, Sr.; C Robert Fabelo, Sr.; OF Cristian Martin, Sr.; INF Brandon Chinea, Sr.; INF Jorge Iza, Sr.
2. WESTMINSTER CHRISTIAN (Coach Emil Castellanos, 10th year, 222-71-7). Last year: 24-7-1 (State champions). Top players: C Jake Zarello, Sr.; OF Alvaro Valdez, Sr.; OF Clinton Gulley, Sr.; P Dylan Cloonan, Jr.; INF Tyler Paige, Jr.; INF Anthony Vilar, So.
3. SLAM (Coach Alfonso "Flaco" Otero, 2nd year, 23-7). Last year: 23-7 (Regional quarterfinalist). Top players: C Jose Garcia, Jr.; SS Jeter Downs, Jr.; 3B-INF Andres Santana, Jr.; P-OF Chauncey Nunez, Jr.; P-1B Juan Osorio, So.; OF Brian Frias, Sr.
4. PALMER TRINITY (Coach Donnie Harvey, 15th year at PT, 18th overall, 164-162). Last year: 21-5 (Regional semifinalist). Top players: 3B-C Blake Miller, Sr.; SS Jarett Pico, Sr.; 2B Cole Hebble, Jr.; P-1B Justin Kross, Sr.; 1B-CF Dillon Jones, Sr.; CF-C Zack Peckins, Sr.
5. MIAMI COUNTRY DAY (Coach Chuck Sennett, 12th year, 121-133). Last year: 8-16. Top players: SS-P-C Juztin Gross, Sr.; OF-1B Kian Anderson, So.; 2B-3B Austin Pollak, So.; C-P Griffin Sennett, Jr.; OF Colten Katcher, Jr.; 3B-SS-P Connor Goodman, Fr.
1. ARCHBISHOP CARROLL (Coach Andy Blanco, 2nd year, 21-32). Last year: 5-21. Top players: 1B John Leon, Jr.; SS-P Ryan Pereda, Jr.; P-OF Lizandro Echemendia, Sr.; P-OF Alex Gonzalez, Sr.; OF Jimmy Heyworth, So.; 3B-P Sal Lorenzo, Jr.
2. ARCHBISHOP CURLEY (Coach Jerry Yeash, 36th year). Last year: 0-24. Top players: INF Jordie Herrera, Sr.; P-INF David Diaz, Jr.; C Jose Pina, Jr.; OF Steven Garcia, So.; 1B Brian Lopez, Jr.; P-INF Chris Cardozo, So.
WESTWOOD CHRISTIAN (Coach Julio Andrade, 3rd year, 23-21). Last year: 10-11. Top players: C Matt Fernandez, Sr.; RHP-OF Mathew Mejias, Sr.; CF Peter Esposito, Jr.; SS-RHP Humberto Dimare, Sr.; P-OF Nick Mejias, Jr.; SS-RHP Nathan Pereira, Jr.