State Colleges

South Floridians making an impact in college baseball postseason

Monsignor Edward Pace High School seniors Chris Rodriguez (seated left) and Jorge Arenas (seated right) signed Letters of Intent to play NCAA Division I baseball for Jacksonville University and Stetson University, respectively. Stetson is in Deland. They are pictured with Pace temmates.
Monsignor Edward Pace High School seniors Chris Rodriguez (seated left) and Jorge Arenas (seated right) signed Letters of Intent to play NCAA Division I baseball for Jacksonville University and Stetson University, respectively. Stetson is in Deland. They are pictured with Pace temmates.

Two years ago, Jim Morris was coaching, the Miami Hurricanes were on an NCAA-record streak with 44 consecutive years qualifying for a college baseball regional, the Florida Gators had zero national titles and the Stetson Hatters had never hosted an NCAA regional.

None of that is true anymore.

This past weekend, it was as if college baseball had a blowout party but forgot to dial 305. Miami’s two Division I teams — the Canes and the FIU Panthers — failed to win their conference tournaments or earn at-large invitations.

But that didn’t stop Florida State, defending national champion Florida and, yes, Stetson, from hosting regionals.

And that didn’t stop South Florida, Jacksonville and Florida Atlantic from earning invitations either.

“The talent down here is unbelievable,” South Florida coach Billy Mohl said from DeLand, where his team battled in the Stetson Regional. “That’s the reason our RPI is so good [No. 18 nationally]. We play midweek games against Florida, FSU, Stetson, Florida Gulf Coast, Miami … There’s good baseball all around the state.”

But it hasn’t been good enough lately in Miami. The Canes have failed to make a regional two years in a row — and that’s not the type of streak they are accustomed to in Coral Gables. With Morris retired after a stellar quarter century at UM, coach Gino DiMare is in charge of getting the Canes back on track.

UM baseball coach Jim Morris gives his final speech to the team Monday, May 28, 2018, after they watch the selection program for the NCAA Division I Baseball Tournament. They failed to make the selection for the second year in a row.

As for FIU, Mervyl Melendez has increased the Panthers’ recruiting profile in his two years on the job, and his teams have dominated the Canes during his tenure, winning five of six games.

Overall, though, the Panthers are just two games over .500 under Melendez, and FIU hasn’t made an NCAA regional since 2015.

But just because UM and FIU were left home doesn’t mean South Floridians aren’t enjoying June baseball.

On Sunday night, the Stetson Hatters (48-11) became the first Florida school to win a 2018 regional. The Hatters broke a 1994 school record by winning their 18th consecutive game, the longest active win streak in the nation.

FIU baseball coach Mervyl Melendez lauds his players after beating Miami 12-1 on Tuesday, March 7, 2017.

Stetson’s starting shortstop is Jorge Arenas, an ex-Monsignor Pace standout who made the all-tournament team this weekend, hitting a three-run homer and also banging an RBI double off the wall in center. He leads the team in RBI.

Hatters opening-night pitcher in this tournament, Joey Gonzalez, is from Miami Killian.

“[Steve Trimper] loves Miami guys,” Gonzalez said of the Stetson coach. “We’re good baseball players. We love to compete, and there’s a certain swagger about Hispanic players.”

That swagger has been missing in Miami lately, but it’s evident around the state. In fact, South Florida baseball players had a major impact on this DeLand regional.

USF has seven South Floridians on its roster, including two from Miami. USF’s starting shortstop, Coco Montes, is from Coral Gables and is batting .336. USF’s starting third baseman, David Villar, is from Plantation American Heritage, and he entered this weekend ranked second in the nation with 24 doubles while batting .379 with 12 homers and 55 RBI.

And two more USF starters are from Palm Beach: center fielder Duke Stunkel, who is batting .332; and first baseman Joe Genord, batting .311 with 16 homers and 55 RBI.

Stetson has 11 South Floridians, including five from Miami. Aside from Arenas and Gonzalez, starting center fielder Jacob Koos is from Wellington while starting right fielder Mike Spooner and left-hander Mitchell Senger — who earned the win on Friday in relief — are from Boca Raton.

“The state of Florida, in general, is talent rich,” Trimper said. “We’re fortunate to have some great kids from South Florida. And we have some good ones coming in next year from down that way.”

The reasons the aforementioned players didn’t sign with Miami or FIU are varied. Arenas, for example, didn’t play in the showcase summer tournaments and flew under the radar. He wasn’t offered a scholarship by FIU or Miami but felt Stetson was a better fit regardless.

The Hurricanes mad an scholarship offer to Gonzalez, but he didn’t sign because he wanted the chance to play shortstop or third base, and that was a no-go for the Canes.

Stetson gave him the opportunity to play both ways but once he got on campus quickly shifted him to pitcher, where he has distinguished himself (8-3, 1.75 ERA).

In effect, Canes coaches were correct in their evaluation of Gonzalez but lost out anyway.

That’s the way things have been going for the Canes, who were considered baseball royalty throughout the country for decades.

Lately, though, stories of good players Miami missed out on are becoming more prevalent. Duke, for example, has three starters from Fort Lauderdale Pine Crest, including elite outfielder and pro prospect Griffin Conine.

South Florida baseball seem to be everywhere.

Take the case of shortstop Mike Paez from Miami’s Sunset High. He wasn’t offered by Miami or FIU, probably because of his small stature at 5-7. But Paez had a monster year in 2016, led little-known Coastal Carolina to its first College World Series championship and became a fourth-round draft pick of the New York Mets.

Angel Herrera, who knows Paez well and coached Gonzalez and current Canes shortstop Freddy Zamora at Killian, was philosophical when asked about UM baseball recruiting.

“Miami can’t get them all,” said Herrera, who is now the recruiting director at Miami Dade College. “Miami and Broward are full of great players.

“What happens is that the big schools wrap up their recruiting classes early, and then the late bloomers — the grinders like Paez — there’s no scholarship money left for them.

“In my opinion, Miami still has talented players. They just haven’t put it together the past two years. But I’m sure Coach DiMare is going to find the right players to turn it around quickly.”

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