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Dawgs start season eyeing championship

The Sanford River Rats shocked the Winter Park Diamond Dawgs in a comeback win in the FCSL Championship game Aug. 7.

The Sanford River Rats shocked the Winter Park Diamond Dawgs in a comeback win in the FCSL Championship game Aug. 7.

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The Winter Park Diamond Dawgs are coming off a championship appearance in a season in which they led the Florida Collegiate Summer League in hitting. The team is returning many key players as well as bringing in several key additions, and fans are expecting a return to dominance.

So far three games into the season, it seems we have found one thing that can stop the Diamond Dawgs — Mother Nature.

Despite two of their first three games being rained out — including their home opener — Diamond Dawg players and coaches alike are raring to play and are optimistic about the new season.

Coach Kevin Davidson said he expects to return to the championship game, in what would be the team’s third straight appearance. “We didn’t play for second last year and we aren’t this year,” said the former Rollins College catcher and Triple-A prospect.

The Dawgs are looking forward to powering up their lineup with a couple big bats built around their anchor: former Polk State and current University of Tampa slugger Michael Danner. Widely considered their best hitter — and occupying the third spot in the batting order — Danner is returning from the team that lost the championship game last season.

“We fell short,” Danner said, “we had a great team last year — everyone thought we were gonna win it all. This year we have a great team also — we’d love to win it all.”

The Diamond Dawgs feature several big bats in addition to Danner, including outfielder Ted Blackman, who broke several Florida League records at the plate last season along the way to being named MVP of the league, and outfielder Tyler Rocklein, who produced some eye-popping numbers this spring at State College of Florida, with a .343 average, 46 RBIs and 25 stolen bases.

In the first year that the Florida League has allowed high school seniors and college freshmen on rosters, coach Donaldson has brought in a winner — talented 18-year-old Daniel Sweet. Recently drafted in the 23rd round by the Cincinnati Reds, the young switch-hitter batted .392 in his senior season at Northwest Rankin High School in Mississippi and looks to build upon a promising future in Winter Park this summer.

Along with the hitting, Winter Park features some of the most fearsome pitching in the league this season, led by returning righty Chris Waltermire Jr. and new Dawg, lefty Aaron Adams. Adams comes to Winter Park from West Virginia-Wesleyan, where he sported a 10-4 record with 80 strikeouts and a 2.57 ERA in 17 starts.

Waltermire is another player returning from the championship contending team last year who thinks the Dawgs have what it takes to go all the way this season. He said the whole offense has a lot of talent. “I’m sort of glad I don’t have to face a lot of hitters in our lineup… my teammate Michael Danner, he’s ridiculously hard to get out. We’ve got the league MVP Teddy Blackman coming back, got his younger brother here too — he’s just as good — and just 1 through 9, everybody’s pretty tough.”

One thing’s for sure, this talented team will be entertaining to watch, as players eye a third-straight championship game appearance.

That is, if the rain ever stops.