Palm Beach Gardens baseball on verge of making history
Thursday, May 17, 2012
by Matt Porter
Fans traveling to Port St. Lucie this weekend may see local baseball history being made.
Palm Beach Gardens, which has been around for more than 40 years, is two wins away from its first-ever baseball state title.
The Gators, spurred on by a good number of underclassmen, aren't nervous, even though the team may be playing before a decent crowd considering the state playoffs are being held just 45 minutes north of Palm Beach Gardens.
"It's almost scary how loose they are," Palm Beach Gardens coach Joe Russo said. "They've played in a lot of big games this year. It doesn't faze them."
Palm Beach Gardens (21-10) plays Miami-Columbus (27-4) at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Class 8A semifinals at Digital Domain Park. The winner plays Sunday at 7 p.m. for the state title. Also Saturday, Atlantic plays at 1 p.m. in the Class 7A semifinals, with the winner playing Saturday at 4:05 p.m. for the title.
Russo, 42 and a former infielder at Jupiter High and Florida, reached the state final four in 1998, 1999 and 2005, the only such appearances in Palm Beach Gardens school history. He has made the regional playoffs in 11 of his 19 seasons at Gardens.
During Gardens' 2005 appearance at states, Russo had a hard-throwing right-hander - future Florida Marlins first-round pick Chris Volstad - but were out-hit by Pembroke Pines-Flanagan.
At the beginning of this season, it didn't look like the Gators would get this far. They lost their first three games on their way to a 3-5 start, but then responded with nine wins in a row.
The Gators beat Wellington in a play-in game to make the District 9-8A tournament, then beat Palm Beach Central in the tournament semifinals, earning a regional berth. In regionals, they beat Park Vista, Dwyer and West Broward.
Of the regulars on Gardens, three are sophomores and three are juniors. Russo, who became Gardens' head coach at age 23, feels their youth won't be an issue.
Start with junior right-hander Joey Boyd (5-3), who will get the start Saturday against Columbus. He pitched complete games in the district tournament win over Central and in the regionals against Park Vista and West Broward. Sophomore first baseman Pavin Smith, a Virginia commit, is batting .337. Starting catcher J.J. Schwarz, another sophomore, has a .337 average and four homers. Junior Matt Williams (.316) has been strong at third base and closes games on the mound.
Of course, Gardens' seniors have been just as important. First baseman/designated hitter James Jean, who has a county-best seven homers and 32 RBI along with a .337 average, is a vital piece of the offense along with second baseman Jean Cancio (team-high .362 average, four homers).
Columbus advanced to states with a 1-0, nine-inning win over Hialeah in the regional final. Seniors Mike Vinson and Yency Almonte combined for a no-hitter.
Both Vinson and Almonte are 6-foot-4 right-handed power pitchers who throw in the low-90s. Vinson (9-0) is signed to Florida. Almonte is headed to Florida International.
On Wednesday, Russo had his team hit off former Gardens ace J.D. Underwood, a hard-throwing right-hander at Palm Beach State. On Thursday, they went to Port St. Lucie to get acclimated with Digital Domain Park and to hit an area batting facility.
Whether online - all state tournament games will be broadcast at FHSAASports.com - or at the park, Gardens hopes to have all of Palm Beach County watching.
"We're the closest school, so I hope we get a great turnout," said Davis de Montluzin, head of Gardens' baseball boosters. "I've had people call from all across the county telling me they're going."
Dwyer coach Frank Torre said most of his players are still smarting from their regional semifinal loss to Gardens, but he plans to attend Saturday.
"I have similar feelings, but I'm pulling for Joe," Torre said.