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State baseball: With a star frontman, Durant finds way to harmonize

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Wed. May 15, 2013 | Joel Anderson

State baseball: With a star frontman, Durant finds way to harmonize

DURANT — On paper, and in the minds of many fans and opponents, Durant is the consummate one-man band: Tyler Danish and the Cougars.

Danish leads the team in batting average (.415), RBIs (25) and home runs (a school-record eight). But the UF signee saves his best work for the mound, where he hasn’t allowed an earned run in 86 innings.

His all-around dominance this season has been captivating, both galvanizing his teammates and completely overshadowing their efforts.
Think Justin Timberlake and ’N Sync. Beyonce and Destiny’s Child. Chris Martin and Coldplay. Adam Levine and Maroon 5.

Of course, this is a reliable formula for selling music but not winning baseball games. Kelly Rowland has never turned a double play and Lance Bass’ next two-out RBI single will be his first.

“Danish can do a lot,” Durant outfielder Paxton Sims said. “But he can’t do it all.”

The Cougars have been much more than Pips en route to their first region championship, providing timely run support, reliable fielding and strong baserunning. And senior left-hander Chaz Fowler (7-3, 1.53 ERA, 64 strikeouts in 59 innings) would be the ace on most playoff teams.

Their collective efforts have lifted Durant to the Class 8A semifinal at 10 a.m. Friday against Hialeah American at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers. Danish, who has won 14 of 15 starts this season, will try to pitch the Cougars into the championship game.

“It’s not just one kid who’s gotten us here,” Danish said. “We’re a complete team. We do everything as a group.”

Indeed, the Cougars (24-5) have received contributions from all over their roster. To name a few:

• Junior infielder Luke Heyer is hitting .375, second on the team, and drove in the team’s first two runs in the region championship win Friday over Orlando Timber Creek.

• Junior outfielders Garrett Wright and Sims have been reliable gloves, committing a total of one error all season.

• Freshman catcher Jake Sullivan worked his way into the starting lineup, hitting .305 with five doubles, and handled the task of catching Danish’s 90 mph-plus fastballs with poise that belies his experience.

• Jared Donini, Corey Hamm and Derrek Smith have each played big roles when called to pinch run in close games.

“Danish is who he is and everyone knows it,” Heyer said. “But we’ve got a lot of depth. That’s how you get this far in the playoffs.”

Team chemistry, something often talked about but rarely expressed in anything other than trite platitudes, has also played a role in the Cougars’ success.

Earlier in the year, coach Butch Valdes sought the counsel of his old high school coach, Pop Cuesta at Jefferson, about ways to manage a team with a transcendent star. He drew heavily from the example Cuesta set when future major-league stars Tino Martinez and Luis Gonzalez were at Jefferson in the mid-1980s.

That meant building a family-like atmosphere and creating an environment where all the players felt invested in the team’s success.

Before the first game of the season, Valdes and his coaching staff came up with the idea of an overnight camping trip at nearby Medard Park. They set up their own tents, went out for a long nature walk and later gathered around the campfire for some team-building activities.

“It was a blast,” Valdes said. “That’s how you become a family. Now these boys do everything together.”

They came together again later in the season, after a 1-0 loss at Newsome on April 2 that ended up being Danish’s only defeat of the year.

Danish and senior pitcher Ryan Sullivan organized a players-only meeting at Sullivan’s house, where players go to fish at a nearby lake almost every day after practice.

Over pizzas, the Cougars talked of playing to their potential and not wasting an opportunity to make history at their school. There was no tension, Sullivan said, just honest talk about how the team could improve.

“When it was all over, no one really wanted to leave,” Sullivan said. “After that, we just kind of told stories and had a good time.”

Durant hasn’t lost a game since, running off 11 straight victories en route to the school’s first district and region championships.

It also helps that Danish has handled his senior-year stardom with uncommon poise, Valdes said.

“Of course he’s going to stick out,” Valdes said. “We know he’s the top player but you would never know it around here. He’s just one of the guys.”

Then again, he’s not. Opponents have engaged in lots of trash talk at games and online, trying to unnerve Danish and belittle his teammates. One of the Timber Creek players tweeted Friday that he couldn’t “believe an 18 year old kid is seen as god.”

What followed was a torrent of tweets back at that player, none from Danish. On and off the field, the Cougars have his back.

“Let em hate!” Sims tweeted in response. “We will be in Fort Myers.”

State baseball
Where: JetBlue Park, Fort Myers
Admission: $9, parking is $8
8A semifinals: Durant vs. Hialeah American, 10 a.m.; Altamonte Springs Lake Brantley vs. Jupiter, 1 p.m. Friday

About Hialeah American
Record: 21-8
Nickname: Patriots
Road to the final four: Defeated Coral Gables 7-1, d. Hialeah 13-7, d. Miami Sunset 4-3
Key players: 1B Kendrick Gutierrez (.506 batting average, 25 RBIs, 3 HRs), 3B Romy Gonzalez (.420, 21 RBIs, 21 runs), RHP Andy Figueroa (4-0, 7 saves, 2.29 ERA, 34 Ks, 41 IP)
Noteworthy: The Patriots lost in the Class 6A championship game in 2010. … Gutierrez is the son of American head coach and alum Ricky Gutierrez, who played shortstop for six teams over a 12-year MLB career. Gutierrez, a Palm Beach State College signee, is also a cousin of Miami Heat forward James Jones.

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