College Sports

Manatees look to return to JUCO World Series

BRADENTON -- The 2011 program’s cover features the dog pile scene from last season’s state championship.

The success from that game vaulted the State College of Florida baseball team to the JUCO World Series for the first time since 2002.

However, longtime head coach Tim Hill isn’t harping on the past as the 2011 slate begins today.

“A lot of times at this level we keep thinking about what we did last year,” Hill said. “But this club hasn’t done anything. This is a new club, and everything starts all over. Everybody is going to be gunning for you as always, and this club will have to find its own identity.”

Gone from the 2010 squad are two Major League Baseball prospects -- pitchers Alex Burgos and Josh Lucas.

The pair formed a formidable front line in the rotation, with Burgos baffling JUCO hitters seemingly every time he graced the rubber.

Burgos was named an All-American to go with several other honors for his outstanding performance on the hill.

Replacing the southpaw’s dynamic numbers -- 2.07 ERA and 115 strikeouts in 100 innings -- is a hard thing to do, but the Manatees have two former Manatee High arms in Steven Leasure and Jeremy Strawn returning.

Add in University of Florida transfer Ben Brown, and SCF’s rotation is filling in nicely.

Last season also witnessed a different type of offense instilled as the Manatees -- known more for power in previous years -- resorted to a more small ball feel, while retaining some pop in the middle of the order.

This year, SCF has B.J. Zimmerman returning to the cleanup role to begin the new campaign.

And while Hill said protection doesn’t really come into play in the JUCO game with the aluminium bats, Zimmerman has 6-foot-3, 225-pounder Roderick “Rock” Shoulders hitting in front of him.

The Boston Red Sox drafted Shoulders in the 20th round last year, but the power hitter from Brandon elected to take his talents to Bradenton.

“We’re just fortunate to have him here with us this year,” Hill said. “And he’s a great kid, a great competitor that works really hard at his game. He’s going to provide the big pop in our lineup for us that we kind of missed last year.”

Helping to bring chemistry to the club came in how the fresh faces meshed with the old guard almost as soon as they arrived to SCF.

“It wasn’t like everybody kept to themselves,” Zimmerman said. “As soon as they got here, everybody just kind of, like, all bonded together. And (Hill) with the apartments, put a kid who was on the team last year in the apartment with a bunch of new kids. So that we could all kind of get together and stuff.”

Aside from the new additions to the lineup, the Manatees are going to be without Tyler Rocklein, who led the club with 50 RBIs last year as a freshman.

The former Manatee High standout had Tommy John surgery in the summer, Rocklein said.

Not roaming the outfield for a chance to help the Manatees return to Grand Junction, Colo. -- site of the Juco World Series -- is something that Rocklein said will hurt.

But the outfielder said he’ll be supporting the team throughout the season, even while everyone is gunning for them.

“It’s a lot harder, because now you got that target on your back,” Rocklein said. “Because you’re the team to beat the whole year, which everyone knows you’re the state champ.”

The quest for the elusive JUCO national title begins in Clearwater this weekend with four games.

The Manatees are scheduled to make their home debut Feb. 9 against Seminole State College.

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