Patriots look to rejoin nation's elite

American Heritage (Plantation, Fla.) junior Zach Collins was named MVP of last year's IBAF World 'AA'/16U Youth Championships after leading the USA Baseball 16U National Team to a gold medal. Gregg Forwerck

Bruce Aven knew it was time to retire as a major league outfielder when the teams that were calling him wanted him as a coach, not as a player.

A native of Orange, Texas, Aven played for four major league teams from 1997 to 2002. His career ended in 2003 when he suffered a serious knee injury and went for rehab at Memorial Hospital in Pembroke Pines, Fla.

It’s near that location where Aven began the transition to his second career. Aven created the Memorial Sports Center Baseball and Softball Strength Program, which ultimately led to him landing the job as the head baseball coach of American Heritage (Plantation, Fla.) this season. The position opened up after longtime coach Todd Fitz-Gerald left to coach Douglas (Parkland, Fla.)

“I had been offered opportunities to coach in the minors and in college, but I declined,” Aven said. “Coaching was something I thought I’d do when my son (Kolbe, 10) was older. But the chance to coach American Heritage was too good to pass up.”

It’s easy to see why. American Heritage, which finished No. 3 in the POWERADE FAB 50 and won a state title in 2008 when current MLB star Eric Hosmer was playing for the Patriots, seems to have top-tier talent again. The team began the season No. 40 in this year's POWERADE FAB 50 and nine players have already committed to D-I programs from the Patriots, who lost to North Broward Prep (Coconut Creek, Fla.) in last year’s Class 3A regional semifinals.

The team’s top prospect is senior shortstop Brandon Lopez, who has signed with the University of Miami. Lopez, who hit .462 with five home runs last year, has a strong arm and a steady glove.

“I can easily see him going in the top five rounds (in the June draft),” Aven said. “All the scouts are interested in him.”

Another player to watch is junior catcher Zach Collins, who hit .369 for Flanagan (Pembroke Pines, Fla.) last year before transferring to Heritage.

Collins, another Miami recruit, was named the MVP of the 2011 IBAF World 'AA'/16U Youth Championships after leading the USA Baseball 16U National Team to a gold medal.

Rounding out the offense are junior third baseman Danny Zardon, who has committed to LSU; junior second baseman/center fielder Brandon Diaz, who has committed to FIU; and senior right fielder Esteban Puerta, who signed with Florida Atlantic.

The Patriots’ other Brandon Diaz is a senior left-hander and a Stetson recruit who heads a pitching staff that has four elite prospects. The others are all right-handers: senior Domenick Mancini (Florida Atlantic); junior Shaun Anderson (Florida); and senior Alex Seibold (FIU).

Aven is worried about his pitching depth should one of his big four get hurt and has made plans to use Lopez and possibly Zardon on the mound in some circumstances.

“I have no problems pitching,” Lopez said. “I told Coach (Aven) I’ll do whatever he needs.”

Lazaro Llanes, the director of the Selective Recruiting tournament that will feature American Heritage next month, said most teams would love to have the Patriots’ so-called problems.

“Other than Columbus (Miami), there aren’t many teams in the state and probably the country that have four Division-I pitchers,” he said. “And Lopez and Zardon are studs on the mound.”

This year, the Patriots are among the favorites in Class 5A, along with Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.) and its ace pitcher, Lance McCullers Jr.

Aven, though, said his team still has a lot of work to do.

“Sometimes, when a high school team has a lot of talent, you can make four errors and still win,” Aven said. “But we’re teaching our kids to play the right way. Hopefully, a state championship will be a byproduct of playing the right way.”