MANATEE -- State College of Florida's baseball program makes a habit of competing at the state tournament, and this year's Manatees aren't an exception.
SCF (41-11) has compiled a club capable of earning a return trip to the JUCO World Series, if you go strictly by the FCSAA Coaches Poll.
The Manatees are rated No. 2 behind Tallahassee.
But first-year head coach Tim Hill II doesn't go by those numbers when focusing on what he called a difficult region in Florida.
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"I think no matter which team you draw, I think the rankings don't really mean anything," Hill II said. "Coaches that have done this a long time, and being in the state tournament as many years as we have, I think whoever you draw that first game is going to be tough. ... Any of these eight teams can win it."
Up first for SCF is Seminole State College of Florida. The teams are scheduled to lock horns at 4 p.m. Friday at Lakeland's Joker Marchant Stadium.
Getting a victory early is important to avoid fighting out of the loser's bracket in the double-elimination tournament.
So Hill II is turning the ball over to his ace, Robby Kalaf. The sophomore has dominated opposing hitters this season. Kalaf has posted a 1.31 earned-run average, while racking up 77 strikeouts and three complete games in 89 1/3 innings pitched.
That has added up to an 8-0 record.
"We've played two games against them this year," Kalaf said. "I did the pitching chart both games that we played them, so I have a pretty good idea of how to come at these guys."
Kalaf is just one in a stable of solid arms at Hill II's disposal.
Joining Kalaf at the top of the rotation is Ben Ancheff (10-2, 2.19 ERA, 7.96 K/9). Reggie McClain (8-2, 2.71 ERA, 7.23 K/9) and Casey Mulholland (3.20 ERA, 9.20 K/9) provide depth with power pitching.
"I think pitching is the strength of our team," Hill II said. "I like our bats as well, but pitching has been very good for us all year."
The bullpen, led by the high-octane gas from Devin Raftery (3.40 ERA, nine saves, 10.60 K/9) and Casey Eskew (25 strikeouts in 27 2/3 innings and five earned runs), has helped the starters gain a comfortable foothold.
Mix in the offense, with the likes of LSU-bound Connor Hale and second baseman Orlando Rivera, and SCF is primed for a tournament run.
Hale is one of five Manatees to sport a batting average higher than .300. Rivera leads the club in hitting with a .382 average and has a team-high 20 stolen bases.
His role as a table-setter has bolstered the club and allowed Hale (58 runs batted in, .488 slugging), Jarred Smith (.316, 10 doubles, three home runs) and Sean Trent (.314, four home runs) to produce.
"You get Orlando Rivera on and anything can happen," Kalaf said. "We've just got a lot of weapons on offense."
And so Seminole State looms on Friday, a team the Manatees beat twice in February.
However, the Raiders (34-12) are a different club than the one SCF faced. Seminole has won five straight games and is 8-2 over its past 10 games.
Shortstop Angelo Amendolare (.366 average, 23 stolen bases) is the Raiders' answer to Rivera, and Seminole has a solid mix of bats in tallying 18 home runs and a .318 team batting average.
Should SCF get past the Raiders, the Manatees will face the winner of No. 3-ranked Miami-Dade and Chipola.