Palm Beach Central High baseball coach Scott Benedict jokes that his stint as a college player at Georgia doesn’t automatically make him a Gator hater.
In fact, he has coached or played with every Florida assistant coach, and he and head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, former stars at North Shore High and Jupiter High, respectively, “go way back.”
It’s relationships like those that make No. 23 Florida the top recruiter of Palm Beach County’s baseball talent. O’Sullivan and his staff have long-lasting ties to area coaches, giving them a leg up on programs such as No. 16 Miami, their host for a weekend series that begins Friday in Coral Gables.
Florida, which hauled in the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class according to Baseball America — Miami is sixth — has 28 in-state players, including three from Palm Beach County: junior left-hander Bobby Poyner (Palm Beach Central), who will start Friday; junior reliever Ryan Harris (Jupiter) and sophomore left-hander Danny Young (St. Andrew’s). The Gators’ No. 3 hitter, catcher Taylor Gushue, is a Boca Raton native who played at Fort Lauderdale-Calvary Christian.
“I might be a little biased, but I think they’ve done a great job,” said Jupiter coach Andy Mook, a UF alum. “UM’s always done a great job with South Florida. Of course Florida State’s always going to get their guys, and they do well in the Port St. Lucie area, too.”
Mook said Central Florida and North Florida are starting to catch up with the big three, but UM, UF and FSU are “definitely the top dogs” in recruiting Palm Beach County. UF currently has commitments from Palm Beach Gardens catcher J.J. Schwarz and Dwyer lefty Tom Szapucki, a junior. Gardens coach Joe Russo, one of O’Sullivan’s closest friends, was his American Legion and high school teammate. Dwyer coach Frank Torre played for him in the Cape Cod League.
Miami, which has more in-state players (29) than any of the big three, is heavy with Miami-Dade and Broward players. Its starting shortstop, Alex Hernandez, played for Benedict at Palm Beach Central. Royal Palm Beach alum Christopher Barr, a sophomore, is redshirting this season due to injury. UM has also done well with Palm Beach State, last year securing a commitment from ace J.D. Underwood (Palm Beach Gardens), who opted to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
FSU, which hosts UM next weekend, has 26 in-state players and three from Palm Beach: American Heritage alums Billy Strode and Dylan Silva, and West Boca Raton grad Matt Mulroy, who played at Palm Beach State.
In a rivarly that was once dominated by Miami, Florida has taken 13 of the last 14, winning 11 in a row before UM won the series opener last season. UF, like UM, was eliminated in the NCAA regionals last season.
Miami is 2-2, having dropped a game in the opening series to Maine and Wednesday’s game against FAU. Maine is the defending America East champion, while FAU, like UM, has aspirations of a trip to Omaha.
While the Canes’ starting rotation of Chris Diaz, Bryan Radziewski, Andrew Suarez and Javi Salas has combined for 34 strikeouts and five earned runs in 21 innings, the Canes are batting just .228 as a team. A surprise issue: UM has made 12 errors, split between eight different players.
“We did not expect to be hitting what we’re hitting, obviously,” said outfielder Dale Carey, who is batting a team-high .400. “I’m optimistic. I know we’re going to start hitting.”
UF (4-1), meanwhile, took two of three from Maryland, then beat Central Florida and North Florida. Poyner pitched 5.1 shutout innings in his debut, but the Gators’ Saturday and Sunday starters, Brett Morales and Karsten Whitson, combined for eight earned runs in 5.1 innings their first time out. UF is also batting .255 as a team.
Similar to football, plenty of players know each other from high school playoff games and summer ball. UM left fielder Tyler Palmer, a senior, even played his freshman year at UF before transferring to UM.
On Friday, UM’s Hernandez will try to get a hit off UF’s Poyner, who has been his teammate “since we were 9 or 10,” Hernandez said. “He texted me asking me if I was excited for the weekend. I’m pumped. It’s a great early challenge.”
Their former coach, Benedict, couldn’t decide who to root for. Hernandez said he knows what’s in his heart.
“For sure, he’ll be going for the Gators on Friday, with Poyner pitching,” Hernandez said. “Hopefully Saturday and Sunday, he’s putting on a Hurricane shirt.”