BRADENTON -- Unlike in past seasons, the State College of Florida baseball program enters this weekend's state tournament as an underdog.
And that's OK with the Manatees.
"I feel like we get underestimated a lot more than we should, but I'm fine with it," said first baseman Brad Zunica, who starred at Lakewood Ranch and has a state-leading 52 runs batted in this season.
SCF finished runner-up in the Suncoast Conference after a 37-16 season and begins the Florida College System Activities Association's state baseball tournament against St. Johns River State College at 10 a.m. Friday at Lakeland's Joker Marchant Stadium.
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St. Johns is the top-ranked team in the state with a 44-8 record and ranked No. 2 nationally.
"I think every kid is probably hitting .450 with 20 home runs," said SCF head coach Tim Hill II, whose team qualified for this week's tournament for a state-record 20th consecutive season. "From what I hear, their offense is pretty good, and they have a couple good arms. From what I hear, the kid we're going to see is signed with Florida State. ... So on paper, I'd say those guys would be favored."
SCF's ace, Taylor Cockrell, is slated to start the opener. At the end of the regular season, the Manatees began limiting Cockrell with a pitch count to keep his arm fresh for the state tournament.
The former Stetson University pitcher has been involved in big games in the past, throwing in the Hatters' conference tournament last year.
Cockrell has compiled a 9-2 record with 85 strikeouts and a 2.55 ERA in 98 2/3 innings.
"I need to command the fastball and then throw off-speed for strikes," said Cockrell, who was named to the All-State second team with Zunica. Catcher John Jones was named to the all-state first team.
Helping the Manatees' pitching staff this season has been Don Robinson, who pitched 15 years in the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates, San Francisco Giants, California Angels and Philadelphia Phillies.
"He certainly brings a lot of credibility," Hill said. "Because everybody wants to do what he did, pitch 15 years in the big leagues, pitch in a couple World Series. So he commands a lot of respect. ... I'm glad he's on our side."
In addition to pitching, the team that wins the state title early next week will have to hit with runners in scoring position and limit the mistakes in the field.
That's the normal recipe for postseason success, but this year's state tourney could see a winner come from any of the 10 teams.
It's because of how much parity exists in Florida.
"It comes down to any of the 10 that plays the best baseball for that week," Hill II said. "... if you look back at the previous champions since I've been here. So this year, number 17, I think we've had 13 different winners in 17 years. That's pretty impressive."
A victory over St. Johns would vault SCF to the winner's bracket on Sunday against the winner of the state's second-ranked team, Chipola, and either Hillsborough or Broward, who play each other Friday for the chance to face Chipola on Saturday.
It would take a total of five straight victories for the Manatees to return to the JUCO World Series for the first time since 2010. SCF has never won the national title, but has finished runner-up in the country on five separate occasions.