Elijah Dukes

Wharton High Baseball Primed For Another Big Season

Michael Burgess was content to be an assistant coach on the Carrollwood Day School staff for the 2022 high school baseball season. But, when the Wharton High head coaching job unexpectedly opened up, Burgess figured it was too good to pass up.

“I really just wanted to be a hitting coach,” Burgess said. “But then, this job just fell into my lap so I thought, why not? It’s a great opportunity to get some coaching experience and help prepare guys for the next level.’’

Burgess, 33, takes over for Scott Hoffman, who spent 18 years as the Wildcats’ coach, winning 267 games, including last year’s District championship. Burgess inherits a team that went 21-5 and returns several key players. Not that he’s had much time to get to know his players — Burgess was hired only about a month ago and has had to hit the ground running, as the Wildcats are off to a 4-1 start.

Burgess is no stranger to Hillsborough County baseball, however. He was a star outfielder at Hillsborough High and helped the Terriers reach the State championship in 2006. In 2007, after a stellar senior season, he was selected in the supplemental first round of the 2007 Major League Baseball draft by the Washington Nationals as the 49th overall player selected. 

While Burgess never played in a major league game, he did manage to have a 12-year professional career. He played a total of 1,256 minor league games for four different Major League Baseball organizations (Nationals, Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros, and Baltimore Orioles), in the Mexican League as well as the Independent League, hitting a total of 185 home runs before retiring in 2018.

He returned to Tampa, but hadn’t gotten baseball out of his system.

“It’s going to be a fun and great experience,’’ Burgess says of coaching the ‘Cats. “I’ve been down this road once before in high school. I’m familiar with all the competition. I can’t hit for the guys though. They’re always asking me, ‘Hey coach, you think you can beat such and such in a home run derby?’ I just tell them, ‘Y’all have no idea what I can do.’’’ 

Burgess will have several top-notch players returning from last year’s playoff team as his nucleus.

Senior pitchers Evan Chrest (left) and Ryan Fry.

It starts with the one-two combination of senior pitchers Ryan Fry and Evan Chrest. Both are right-handers who combined to win 14 games last season. Fry, who is committed to University of Miami, was 6-1 with a 1.88 ERA last season, and struck out 12 in six innings to get a 2-1 win in the 2022 season opener. Chrest, a Jacksonville University commit, was 8-2 with a 1.93 ERA last season. 

So far this season, the Wildcat duo has combined for. awhopping 42 strikeous in 22 innings, and only allowed five earned runs.

Burgess expects left-handed seniors Vijay Wadhwani and 6-foot-7 Jaythan Wilson to provide relief for his two starters. 

“We’ve got two horses coming back,’’ Burgess says. “They have a dog mentality on the mound and throw a lot of strikes. We’re going to ride those guys all season. We have some guys who are going to come in on the back end and close out some games.’’

Offensively, senior Elijah Dukes is primed for a breakout season, and opened the 2022 season with a homer after leading the team last year with four (to go along with 24 RBI). Through five games, Dukes is hitting .429 with two homers.

The son and namesake of the former Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Hillsborough High standout, Dukes is a 5-foot-11, 240-pound prospect who can play the infield or outfield.

Burgess has known Dukes since he was born and has watched him grow up.

“I keep an eye on him and help him with his swing,’’ Burgess says. “His swing is very similar to mine. I’d say almost identical. I can really help him stay under control.

“He’s got some high expectations. He has pop to all fields. He can run. He’s not as fast as his dad, but he can run. He has good hands. We’re going to try to get some great things out of him this year.’’

Dukes won’t be the only bat to deal with for Wharton. Fellow seniors Billy Eich, a 6-6 first baseman and the Wildcats’ leading returning hitter after batting .360 last year, Quentin Meadows (14 RBI last year. andalready batting .538 this year) and David Limbach (who is on pace to better last year’s .315 BA and 20 RBI) are all expected to provide offense. With 11 seniors on the roster, expect the Wildcats to make a lot of noise in Class 6A for the next three months.

 “We’re just looking for a couple of guys to step up,’’ Burgess said. “Once those couple of guys step up it’s going to be a great season.’’

Evan Mobley


COACH: Tripp Merrell (fourth season)

LAST SEASON: 12-13 (5-4, third place in Class 5A, District 6)

KEY RETURNERS: Raul Olivera, Sr., Util; Gio Mendoza, Jr., C; Lucas Richardson, Sr., INF

PROMISING NEWCOMERS: Evan Mobley, Sr., P/INF; Logan Lambert, Jr., 3B.

BREAKOUT STAR: In his first game as a member of the Patriots, Evan Mobley threw a shutout in a 6-0 season-opening win over Alonso, and hasn’t allowed an earned run in two appearances. The Tampa Bay Tech transfer certainly got off to a good start and will be counted on to eat up innings this season. He also will play the infield when not on the mound. Mobley hit a team-best .340 for the Titans in 2021. 

OUTLOOK: This is the fourth season for Merrell, which means this will be the first class he has coached from freshmen to seniors. The Patriots are already off to one of their best starts ever at 4-1.

There are eight seniors on the roster and plenty of depth in the lineup, and his top five returning offensive players are top hitter Raul Olivera (.430, 34 hits, 13 RBI, six doubles — all team bests in 2021). Through the first five games, freshman Bryce Nanns, junior Gio Mendoza, senior Lucas Richardson, Olivera and Mobley all have four RBI each.

In addition to Mobley, senior Michael Morrison, junior Joey Wey and senior Marshall Chastain (who has 12 strikeouts in 10.2 innings this season) should provide pitching depth. 

One of the difficulties for the Patriots almost every season is the competition. District 5A-6 includes perennial Tampa powers Jesuit, Jefferson and Hillsborough. But, with a veteran roster, Freedom has as its best chance in recent memory to compete with those top-tier teams. 

COACH SAYS: “There is a lot of optimism going through this program right now. We’ve got seven of our nine offensive starters returning, we’ve got a deep pitching staff. If we can improve on what we’ve been working on during the offseason then we should be in pretty good shape. Our district is very tough, but that’s Hillsborough County baseball. It’s a challenge every year.”  — Freedom baseball coach Tripp Merrell


COACH: Amber Lamb

LAST SEASON: 8-11 (2-5 in Class 7A, District 11). 

KEY RETURNERS: Riley Collins, Sr. P; Lexi Cowles, Jr. 1B/C (photo); Isabella Rittle, Sr., INF; Haleigh Self, Sr., 3B.

PROMISING NEWCOMERS: Hannah Lopez, Fr.; Samantha Leyva, Fr.; Brooke Loomis, So., P/INF (Brooks-DeBartolo transfer). 

BREAKOUT STAR: As the only returning pitcher with any experience, senior Riley Collins will be heavily relied upon. She threw 104 innings as a junior and had a 3.62 ERA. She struck out 40, so she will have to increase that total this season. Collins, who also hit .244, will be asked to throw strikes and should have a better defense behind her this season. She was 6-11 as a junior, but she could easily completely flip that record this season. 

OUTLOOK: Lamb, who missed the Covid-shortened 2020 season due to maternity leave, had a hard time fielding a team in 2021. But, at least she fielded one — this year, Freedom High will not have a softball team, due to a lack of players.

Although Lamb’s best player, Tieley Vaughn, is now at USF after rewriting much of the school record book, the roster is fuller and Lamb says she has depth and has improved at just about every position. Junior Lexi Cowles may have been overshadowed, but she was outstanding last year, leading the team in doubles (7) and RBI (28); she also was second in hits (27), runs (20), triples (3) and home runs (3). She is off to a hot start this season, hitting .562 with two doubles and home run in the early going.

Senior infielder Isabella Rittle is hitting .417 and already has two homers, the first of her varsity career.

Lamb says she also is very impressed with freshmen Lopez and Leyva, and Loomis could pick up some innings to give Collins a breather. 

COACH’S QUOTE: “There is definitely optimism this season. We had so many more girls try out this season than last season. We were so scarce on numbers. But now, it’s very encouraging. We are trying to win the District (6A-6). That is definitely a goal.’’ —Wharton softball coach Amber Lamb

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