TAMPA — The first practice of the season has now become the stuff of legend, almost entirely because of how truly awful it was.
Cambridge Christian welcomed about a dozen players to that February practice, hoping as many as five of them would be able to replace graduated starters. That didn’t seem remotely possible when the team left the field at the end of that afternoon.
“We were like, 'Can we throw a ball? Can we catch a ball? What can we possibly do?’ ” senior outfielder Zach Hessinger said. “It was like, 'Oh, my gosh.’ We thought it was going to be a long season.”
Turns out, Hessinger and the Lancers were right about it being a long season. But for the wrong reason.
Cambridge Christian has improbably turned that inauspicious start into an amusing memory, possibly the bookend of a year that could end with the program’s first state championship.
“We’ve come a long way,” coach Sam Marsonek said. “But tell those kids that they’re not any good. They won’t believe it and they’ll prove you wrong.”
The Lancers (14-9) will face Westwood Christian of Miami in their Class 2A semifinal today at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers. It will be their third final four in six years, with the other appearances ending in back-to-back Class A title game losses in 2008 and ’09.
They have returned to the ranks of the Florida small-school elite with college-bound players like Hessinger (State College of Florida), junior centerfielder Levi Gilcrease (USF) and senior ace Nick Eicholtz (Alabama).
Eicholtz has shut down opposing offenses, going 5-0 in nine starts with a 0.65 ERA and 74 strikeouts, while Gilcrease (.493 batting average, 14 RBIs, seven homers) and Hessinger (.426, 28 RBIs, four homers) have added punch to an offense that averages almost seven runs per game.
“At this level, if you’ve got three or four players like that, you can sort of ride them and do well,” Marsonek. “But on paper, we’re overmatched. We’re small in numbers and we’re small in size.”
That certainly seemed to be the case when everyone reported for the first day of spring practices at school.
Coming off a year in which they won a district championship and advanced to the region semifinals, the Lancers returned only two seniors (Eicholtz and Hessinger) among their 12 players.
There wasn’t much experience, depth or, seemingly, much talent among those who remained in the program. And early workouts seemed to confirm those suspicions: it was a blooper reel that didn’t seem all that funny at the time.
“It was rough,” said Gilcrease, who has been on varsity since seventh grade. “It didn’t look good. Everyone seemed kind of slow and small.”
“We were down in the dumps,” Hessinger said. “We had no idea what kind of season we were going to have.”
Under Marsonek, a former star pitcher at Jesuit and first-round draft pick by the Texas Rangers in 1996, Cambridge has tried to compensate for its talent deficiencies by honing in on fundamentals: baserunning, defense and in-game strategy.
In that way, Marsonek has turned his small roster into an advantage by spending more time working individually with players.
“I’ve grown so much as a player here,” said Eicholtz, who transferred from Berkeley Prep after his sophomore year. “I knew I hadn’t reached my ceiling yet and (Marsonek) has helped me to get there.”
The same could be said of the Lancers, who lost four of their first seven games but have rebounded down the stretch to win seven straight and nine of their past 11. They were also heartened by one-run losses to bigger schools Land O’Lakes and Wesley Chapel.
But despite their steady improvement and confidence-building winning streak, Marsonek and his players are still holding fast to their belief that they’re underdogs — even among small schools.
“No, we’re still smaller than average,” Marsonek said. “I like being the underdog. I think God can use small numbers to do big things.”
Where: JetBlue Park, Fort Myers
Admission: $9, parking is $8
2A semifinals: Deltona Trinity Christian vs. Vero Beach Master’s Academy, 10 a.m.; Cambridge Christian vs. Miami Westwood Christian, 1 p.m. Wednesday
About Miami Westwood Christian
Road to the final four: Defeated Homestead Colonial Christian 18-1, d. Brito Miami Private 6-2, d. Deerfield Beach Zion Lutheran 11-0
Key players: LHP Danny Garcia (4-2, 1.91 ERA, 73 Ks, 59 2/3 IP), 3B Anthony Penas (.431, 27 RBIs, 6 HRs); SS Luis Diaz (.438, 15 RBIs, 4 HRs)
Noteworthy: The Warriors lost 1-0 to Deltona Trinity Christian in last year’s 2A championship game; Garcia, a 6-foot-1 right-hander, is a Miami recruit; and Penas, the team’s cleanup hitter, is headed to Campbell University in N.C.