TAMPA — Long after everyone else had cleared out of the clubhouse, Plant coach Dennis Braun was going over the previous six innings with sophomore right-hander Jake Woodford.
The two sat in plastic chairs by the edge of the field, talking of improvement and trusting in teammates and keeping the ball down in the strike zone on a full count. Woodford, who cruised early before struggling in his final two innings against Bloomingdale on Tuesday, sat in rapt attention.
So much talent. So much left to learn.
Much the same could be said of the Panthers, who are in the thick of the District 8A-7 title chase with two sophomores recently ranked among the 50 best players nationally in their class and a University of Florida-bound senior compared with former Plant and Gators great Preston Tucker.
“There’s no easy way to learn in this game,” Braun said. “The rankings are nice for the kids. But the end of the day it doesn’t decide anything and it doesn’t win you games.”
Plant (10-5) has lost four of its past seven games, a stretch of uneven play interspersed with moments of brilliance and inexplicable late-game letdowns. Braun points to the youth on his roster, which features only seven seniors among 23 players on the roster.
In the Panthers’ most recent game, a 6-3 victory over Saladino Tournament champion Bloomingdale that was completed Wednesday, only two seniors were in the starting lineup: third baseman Pete Alonso and designated hitter Kyle Woodford.
Leading that youth movement are Kyle Tucker and Jake Woodford — younger brother of Kyle — who were recently included on MaxPreps.com’s list of the top 50 players in the Class of 2015.
The 6-foot-3 Tucker, ranked No. 14 on MaxPreps’ list, has already emerged as one of the top offensive threats in the county. He leads Hillsborough in home runs (five), is tied for first in RBIs (17) and ranks third in batting average (.548).
Many coaches and scouts predict Tucker could someday be a first-round pick in the Major League Baseball draft, surpassing even the exploits and potential of older brother Preston, a former Plant star who became the all-time leader in hits, RBIs, doubles and at-bats at Florida before being drafted in the seventh round by the Houston Astros in July.
“I see what he did in high school and try to match myself up with him,” said Kyle Tucker, whose two homers against Bloomingdale provided the winning margin. “We’ve always been real competitive with each other.”
The Panthers’ other star sophomore, the 6-3 Woodford, has looked every bit like a future pro prospect but still had some moments on the mound that reveal his youth and not-quite harnessed talent.
In his past two starts, against Hillsborough and Bloomingdale, Woodford dominated early — throwing as hard as 94 mph according to at least one scout last week — but surrendered late leads.
Against Hillsborough in the Saladino Tournament, Woodford and the Panthers held a 4-1 lead in the bottom of the seventh before allowing four runs in a defeat that essentially knocked them out of the tourney.
In the start against Bloomingdale on Tuesday, Woodford issued a two-out walk and immediately paid for it when the next hitter doubled in the tying run in the fifth inning.
Woodford said fatigue and excitement played a role in the late-game struggles.
“I’ll keep working at,” he said. “I’ve just got to let it go.”
With so many underclassmen pressed into early playing time, Braun has leaned on seniors like Alonso, who also earned favorable comparisons with Preston Tucker when he signed with Florida in November.
Alonso has embraced the opportunity to move into a leadership role on a team brimming with talented youth. So far he has been a steadying influence both off the field and on, hitting .391 with eight RBIs, three homers and a team-leading seven doubles.
“This year is kind of a rebuilding year,” said Alonso, a two-time first-team all-county selection who led all public school hitters with a .485 average last spring. “But I think the more and more we play together, the better we’ll get every game.”
Indeed. That’s something the Panthers are counting on: eventually their potential will yield better returns in the postseason, unlike last spring when a more experienced team was bounced out of the district tournament in the semifinals.
“We’ve probably got more replacement guys in the field than I’ve had in my nine years here,” Braun said. “But everybody out there can play, and that’s why they’re out there. We’ve basically got 25 practice games to get better.”