FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Judging by the wide and infectious smile on his face and his tendency to give anyone he spoke with a friendly slap on the back, it was quite obvious there was no place on earth Josh Hart would have rather been than right here Friday afternoon.
Hart was in his element at City of Palms Park, surrounded by his Parkview (Ga.) High School teammates as the Panthers prepared to take on Sarasota (Fla.) High School in their tournament opener at the Perfect Game High School Showdown. He is a veteran of 27 Perfect Game events, has signed to study and play at Georgia Tech and is projected to be an early round draft selection, but he is fully enjoying his senior season of high school baseball -- and being at the PG High School Showdown.
"Throughout the whole season so far this year, this is the big bang," Hart said while taking a break from a BP session at the indoor cages at COP. "This can put us back on the top and I've been looking forward to this since the beginning (of the season).
"I love these guys and we've been playing together since our freshmen year and coming out here and facing this competition with our good chemistry, I think we'll do good."
Parkview, ranked No. 13 in the PG High School National Rankings, started out well when it rode a combined four-hit shutout from left-hander Christain Vann and Sam McCoy to a 1-0, 1-hour and 14-minute win over Sarasota (Fla.) High School in its Showdown opener Friday afternoon. The Panthers were set to play No. 3-ranked Venice (Fla.) High School later Friday evening.
"I like this group, and I think we have a chance, if we can come together as a team, to be there at the end," Parkview head coach Chan Brown said before the game. "Right now we're just struggling a little bit finding an identity for the team and we're still playing around with some lineups, and this and that. It's not anywhere where it needs to be yet and we're struggling a little bit, especially defensively."
Parkview won back-to-back Georgia AAAAA state championships in 2011 and '12 and has 11 seniors on its roster that got to experience both of those titles. The undisputed clubhouse leader is Hart, a 2012 Perfect Game All-American and 2012 Perfect Game National Showcase alumnus who will be remembered in the Parkview High baseball community as one of the best to ever to come out of the Lilburn, Ga., school.
"He's been a great leader and great leadoff hitter and centerfielder for us for four years, and you really couldn't ask for anything more," Brown said. "We've had a lot of great players come through here, and he's just the latest one. He's gotten stronger over the four years he's been here ... and he's really becoming the player that everybody thinks he is.
The "player that everybody thinks he is" is the same one that shined for four years playing on Brown's Parkview state championship-caliber teams and also for Guerry and Kevin Baldwin with the East Cobb Astros and East Cobb Braves during the summer. We can get to those East Cobb and PG years in a moment: Hart's heart, soul and mind are focused on the Parkview Panthers at the moment.
"Coming off back-to-back state championships, we brought that into this year," he said. "The whole chemistry, the whole intensity level and focus and we want to go out and do the exact same thing. (We have) a big target on our backs with back-to-back state championships and everyone's gunning for us. That's what makes this (tournament) so significant, facing this great competition."
Hart participated in his first PG event with the East Cobb Astros at the 2009 PG WWBA 14u National Championship in Marietta, Ga.; more than 20 additional PG WWBA and PG BCS Finals tournaments would follow with either the EC Astros or Braves. He was a key member of the East Cobb Baseball team that won the 2012 PG WWBA World Championship last October in Jupiter, Fla.
At the conclusion of the PG WWBA World Championship, PG scouting supervisor/director of high school coverage Todd Gold named Hart just one of five "Impact Position Players" at the event. Gold wrote that "It's rare to find an athletic leadoff hitting centerfielder whose game can best be described as workmanlike, but his consistent production for East Cobb most certainly qualifies." Gold also noted: "It could be said that Hart's level of play was on par with the caliber of competition in Jupiter, but the reverse would be more accurate."
Hart said he strives to carry the championship mentality that he developed with East Cobb back to his teammates at Parkview, and they've obviously paid attention.
"You take that intensity from the summer and then you apply that to high school ball, good things will happen," he said. "Once you go forward, everybody follows."
Hart was also a regular on the PG showcase circuit, hitting most of the big ones during the summer. He was at both the 2010 and 2011 PG National Underclass Showcase-Main Event here in Fort Myers and the 2011 PG National Games in San Diego.
"Perfect Game puts on great showcases for us guys to get noticed, and coming out here every year and trying to improve, I just really appreciate (the opportunity)," he said.
Of course, the two crowning jewels came last summer with his appearances at both the PG National Showcase at the Metrodome in Minneapolis and the PG All-American Classic presented by Rawlings played at PETCO Park in San Diego.
"That was probably one of the best moments of my life, just playing there at the Metrodome," Hart said. "Just seeing all that great talent, like Dominic Smith, Clint (Frazier), Austin (Meadows), Travis (Demeritte) and all of them -- just seeing them play was amazing. Especially at the Perfect Game All-American (Classic) in California; those were probably the best moments of my life."
There was never really any doubt Hart would one day sign a national letter of intent with Georgia Tech. The top prospect from the Atlanta suburbs practically grew up on Tech's Atlanta campus.
"I've been going to Georgia Tech for their baseball camps every year, and I knew the coaching staff at an early age," he said. "It was like a family; I knew the coaching staff and knew the players. A lot of those guys played for East Cobb and the whole thing just came together. The whole environment and being in the city, I really kind of like it."
Hart is ranked the country's No. 56 national high school prospect among all of the nation's seniors. The one thing that may keep him from ever matriculating at Georgia Tech is the fact that he is also ranked the No. 118 overall (college, juco, high school) prospect in the 2013 MLB draft class, a ranking that projects to a third round selection.
"I'm looking forward to the draft," Hart said without hesitation. "It's one of my dreams to play professional baseball and I'm looking forward to it. And having Georgia Tech (as backup plan) isn't a bad idea either."
There is still unfinished business at the high school level for Hart and his Parkview teammates. The first matter at hand is beating all four of the Florida opponents the Panthers will face at the PG High School Showdown.
"We're coming down here to, obviously, win some games and hopefully give ourselves a chance to win some games," Brown said. "We're going to give some people some shots to show us what they can do. It's going to show us what we're all about and hopefully we can show up and play our game.
"We're hoping this trip will kind of jell us together, We go back home into a very tough part of our region play, and we've got to do well there in order to go to the state playoffs."
Hart is confident another gold trophy representative a third straight Georgia state championship is in the offing. He's not the only Panther that is going to be playing at a higher level in the next year or two: 2013 top utility player Jarrett Freeland has signed with Georgia, 2013 outfielder Ryan Blanton with Georgia State, and 2014 left-hander -- ranked No. 20 nationally in his class -- has committed to Georgia.
"I think we have more talent than last year and even the year before last year," he said. "If we can put the pieces together and good things will happen, most likely a three-peat. And then we can make history for (Parkview) baseball."