EAST LAKE — The jokes, giggles and chatter were abundant Wednesday afternoon in the East Lake High softball team's dugout.
There was talk about the Advanced Placement exam. About what flavor of bubble gum is the best. What wasn't discussed was the game of softball.
There was no chatter about the Eagles team being perfect this season at 28-0 and two games away from a state championship.
The mood was the same as the softball players took the field for warm-ups. Intertwined with the pop of the lime-colored ball hitting the mitt's pocket was lots of chatter.
East Lake's players and parents attribute the mood and the team's success to head coach Mike Estes.
"He goofs around a lot and he makes us feel relaxed," said Alyssa Bache, 17, a senior pitcher with a softball scholarship to the University of Florida. "I don't know how to explain it. It's just a relaxed environment. But he's an amazing coach."
Catherine Gangloff's daughter is a sophomore pinch runner for the Eagles. She said while Estes makes playing softball fun, the girls respect and listen to him. He's considered a mentor, Gangloff said.
"He has an easy style and you don't see it very often in organized sports," Gangloff said after dropping her daughter Audrey off for practice. "It's successful — very successful, obviously."
Today, the Eagles will travel to the National Training Center in Clermont to face Bartow High in the Class 5A state softball semifinals. The Eagles reached the semifinals last year, but not with an unblemished record, a rare accomplishment on any athletic level.
"Knowing the sport is what helps," Estes, 49, said of the team's success. "But by knowing the kids and being able to get on their level and know what they are going through, then you can get a lot out of them."
Estes doesn't scream at players when they make mistakes. He doesn't grunt or scowl.
"Who intentionally misses a ball or makes a mistake?" Estes asked, flashing his huge smile. "I can tell you right now who feels bad in that situation and that's the player. There is no need for me to pile it on. (If) I have a player who doesn't feel bad about making a mistake, then they are on the wrong team.
"Besides, at the end of the day, it's a game."
Estes' mother died when he was 10 years old and his father had his own health problems. From ages 14 to 18, Estes lived with his siblings. He spent the school year in St. Petersburg with his sisters and summers in his native Indiana with his brother, who introduced him to baseball.
Estes' father died when he was 17. Estes graduated from Gibbs High School in 1980, then worked at Elston's, a cabinet shop, now in Pinellas Park, for 19 years before starting his own construction business.
"My dad saw me play one Little League game and he never saw me play high school ball," said Estes, who received a brief look from the New York Mets. "I have no regrets about my childhood because I didn't know any different."
Estes stumbled into coaching. His oldest daughter Lyndsie was playing Little League softball in Palm Harbor when an assistant coach quit. Estes was asked to join the coaching staff.
The same thing happened 10 years ago at East Lake High. Lyndsie was a freshman and the softball team needed an assistant. East Lake's football coach, Bob Hudson, was coaching softball at the time. He asked Estes to help with pitching.
"I was reluctant at first because I didn't want people thinking there was an unfair advantage with me coaching her (Lyndsie) on the travel team, too," Estes said.
He took the job and was an assistant for five years. Now in his fifth year as the Eagles' head coach, Estes has a 109-28 record.
Hudson said he is fantastic with the players.
"He's got what you look for because he's able to relate to them. He can have a light mood conversation and at the same time, the girls know where the line is and he can get the respect."
"We get so serious," Hudson said, "and forget it's a game and you want the kids to enjoy it. Mike gets the kids to enjoy it."
Hayley Davis, a senior shortstop with a softball scholarship to the University of Alabama-Birmingham, said, "Coach Mike is the best and fun to be around."
"He lightens everything up and he makes us enjoy the game," Davis said. "He makes it easy to come here every day."
Estes is paid about $2,000 to coach the Eagles, whose season started with January practices. He's calculated that there have been 50 to 60 practices since that time. He doesn't count the 28 games. Estes said Lynda, his wife of 28 years, "deserves an award for putting up with me."
Estes just added another coaching job to his duties. Next season, he will also coach East Lake's volleyball team. He's never coached the sport before but has watched plenty of it. His daughter Brittnay is a junior at East Lake and was a member of the last season's state championship squad.
For Estes, regardless of the sport, coaching is about the players.
"I tell them, 'Look at who is playing your position and be better than them at that game,' " Estes said. "And I do the same thing. I want to be better than the opposing coach on that day.
"And when I argue a call, it's for the kids. If I'm not going to give 100 percent, then how in the world do I expect them to give 100 percent?"
Contact Demorris A. Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org and (727) 445-4174