Dejected, the player jogged off the field toward the dugout. He had just made a mistake that cost the Warriors a potential run. • Steinbrenner High's baseball coach John Crumbley pulled him aside that day last month. Stern at first, he told the player not to make that mistake again. Then, instead of dressing him down, Crumbley took a moment to school him on techniques in running the bases. • That's John Crumbley — always teaching. • And, by the way, nearly always winning.
In his first season as baseball coach for the newly opened Steinbrenner, Crumbley's Warriors have won 15 of their first 18 regular-season games to squarely place themselves in the thick of the Class 4A, District 9 race.
Not only will Steinbrenner host the district tournament, which begins April 26, but the inaugural team will be the event's No. 2 seed.
The top seed?
As in the team Crumbley used to coach.
As in the institution where he spent 22 years building the program into a state and national power.
Under his watch, Jesuit High School won 575 games, 44 of those playoff victories. The Tigers made 11 state final four appearances and won Class 4A state championships in 1994, 1997 and 2000.
But in 2006 Crumbley retired as Jesuit's baseball coach, saying it was time to move on.
In the three years that followed he worked as Jesuit's athletic director then as a volunteer assistant coach at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Then the itch returned. The scratch came as officials announced a team at Steinbrenner.
"I wanted to coach again," said Crumbley, who was hired at the Lutz school in April 2009. "My first year out was difficult. The second year was a little better because I was helping out at FGCU. By the third year I wanted to get back to it, and my wife told me to go for it."
The Steinbrenner program presented new challenges. It had no history and no tradition. Also, the first-year school had no senior class and only a few baseball players with varsity experience.
"I thought that would be the huge motivating factor," said Crumbley, 49. "Building this whole thing from scratch."
Crumbley sought advice from friend and Gaither coach Frank Permuy, who began Gaither's program when the school opened in 1985. He also held informal workouts with his team in the summer and fall of 2009. Crumbley said by the time baseball season rolled around, he noticed something with his fledgling group.
"They bought in," he said. "We had a good nucleus, and the kids seemed like they would be willing to put in the work. So by the time the season came, I felt we would have a chance to be successful."
With a core group of players who transferred from nearby Sickles, one or two more from Gaither and Pasco County's Wiregrass Ranch, Steinbrenner has been plenty successful. The Warriors won their season-opening game in February, a 5-4 victory against Gaither, and then went on to win eight of their first 10 contests. The two losses were both to Jesuit, a 12-2 setback in February and a 4-2 loss a month later.
But even in those losses came lessons.
"We didn't play well in the first Jesuit game" said junior pitcher/infielder Chad Witkowski, who transferred from Wiregrass Ranch. "But we got better when we played them again. That's why we came (to Steinbrenner), to play for Coach Crumbley and learn and get better. Even we have been a little surprised with how well we played this year."
Behind pitchers Witkowski and Sickles transfer Chris Williams, the Warriors have a solid 1-2 combination on the mound. And with Jason Wilton and fellow former Sickles players Ryan Atkinson, Stone Ramsey, Christian Diaz and Gerald Bautista, the Warriors have a batting lineup infused with players, though young, who are all batting above .300.
"Coach Crumbley is just such a fierce competitor," said Williams, a sophomore. "This is my first season at varsity, and I've learned a lot from him."
Early this week, team members were focused on their performance in the annual Saladino high school baseball tournament. It was unclear at press time how far the Warriors would advance.
But Crumbley wants to make sure his young charges take whatever lessons they learn and put them to use in the higher-stakes district tournament later this month.
"I don't really know what was thought about us (by other teams) coming into the season," he said. "But being the No. 2 seed in the district tournament, we're in a real good position to find out. We're going to keep working hard, hopefully play well and make some memories."
And if the district tournament comes down to another meeting with Crumbley's old team, Jesuit?
Witkowski, who has achieved the role of a team leader, is blunt.
"That first game was not so hot," he said. "The second time, we came back. The third time we're going to win."
Rod Gipson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.