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Hernando High's legendary coach Ernie Chatman recalls every detail

Sixteen years later, Ernie Chatman still remembers the count: 1-1.

And the pitch that his ace, Landon Hessler, threw: a changeup.

And why he threw it: to set up Hessler's excellent slider for a possible strikeout.

The location, he recalls, was just a little too high, which led to the result that he remembers, too:

Alex Rodriguez (yes, one and the same), the top-rated prospect on USA Today's top-ranked team in the nation, Miami-Westminster, hit a solo homer for an extra-innings victory over a Hernando High School squad that was also pretty loaded. Hessler and another pitcher, Brent Stentz, would be drafted by the pros; Bronson Arroyo still pitches in the majors.

Chatman, who retired last year after 36 years of coaching and teaching at Hernando High, is well known for remembering such details, and even far more obscure ones — mile splits from his 77 marathons, for example, and the batting averages of long-ago players.

What people may not appreciate is that the attention he pays to these little things in hindsight is no different from the attention he paid to them when he was coaching. He studied tactics and techniques. He insisted they be duplicated perfectly in practice.

Without that, there would have been none of this:

The Dixie League World Series victory in 1983; the school record for most wins in basketball, 25, in 1987, and baseball, 30, in 1982 and 1993; the state cross-county championship in 1997; a second-place finish in girls softball in 2000; induction into the Florida Athletic Coaches Hall of Fame in 2004; and, finally, the 60th birthday/belated retirement party hosted by his daughter, Erin Sullivan, on Saturday evening that was expected to draw scores of former players.

So, maybe, high school kids actually like being told to do things right.

"Coach Chatman's practices were very structured, very detailed, nothing fancy — just doing the basics over and over until it becomes a habit," said Mike Walker, a pitcher on the Dixie League champs who went on to play for the Cleveland Indians.

But, "I loved baseball. I loved practice, and I respected my coach. … After my parents' divorce when I was 11, you could even say coach Chatman became a father figure to me," Walker said.

Perfectly prepared

Chatman's great memory comes in especially handy when you want to look back on career highlights.

By 1983, Hernando's Dixie League team had placed second in the World Series the two previous years. Brooksville was so excited at the prospect of finally winning that radio station WWJB broadcast all of the games live and about 200 Hernando fans followed the team to Louisiana, helping to pack the 7,000-seat stadium.

"You had people planning family vacations around this," Chatman said. "You talk about pressure."

The team, the core of which remained from the record-setting 1982 Hernando High squad, featured Chatman's trademark "small ball" — defense, sacrifice bunts to move runners along, and pitchers drilled in the mechanics of Hall of Famer Tom Seaver.

"He taught the drop-and-drive style of pitching," said Tim Sims, the current Leopards baseball coach, who pitched in the 6-5 series final victory against a team from Alabama.

"He was such a perfectionist. You could be having a great (practice in the) bullpen. The ball was popping inside, it was popping outside. And he would always find something you needed to work on."

Oddly, though, one of the plays Chatman remembers best from those years was one he could never have taught. Future NFL star Jerome Brown, who sat out the final series because he'd already committed to the University of Miami, had been one of the team's best base stealers, despite weighing 250 pounds, and a graceful defender in right field.

Chatman remembers Brown fielding a ball and starting to throw home, when, in mid stride, he changed his mind and with a flick of his wrist threw a strike to third base.

"Somebody told me this a long time ago: 'You can't take a mule to the Kentucky Derby and expect to win.' " Chatman said. "You have to have athletes, and you always got to remember that.''

Focus on teamwork

The 1987 basketball team featured one true star, or a future one, sophomore Jason Sartor, who would grow to 6 feet 6 and become Hernando's career scoring leader.

But ball handling and ball movement were the hallmarks of Chatman's basketball teams, said Brooksville lawyer Bruce Snow. "You'd watch them warm up and it would be like watching miniature Harlem Globetrotters."

"It was a really a team-oriented offense. You had to pass to your teammates in the right spot, screen for your teammates. It really involved all five," said Jeff Laing, a reserve player on the 1987 team and current coach at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics.

So, not surprisingly, when Chatman talks about that team, he talks mostly about Scott Poore, who at just over 6 feet played in the post so one of his teammates — taller but not so good with his back to the basket — could play forward.

Then, when the team's point guard, Tim Mann, went down with an ankle injury in midseason, Poore filled in there, too.

"He could have scored a lot more points that year and gotten a lot more glory," Chatman said. "But he was willing to sacrifice that to some extent to help the team."

Strategic running

Chatman won't pick the toughest runner on his championship cross-country team, but he remembers one who nobody thought was tough and later turned out to be.

Jay Lucado's father had been a star runner, and when his son was a pack filler on the 1997 championship team — one of eight Chatman teams to finish in the top four in the state — it was assumed he was an underachieving talent.

But in the regional finals, with about a half mile to go, Hernando trailed rival Jesuit High by just a few points and Lucado trailed three of the school's runners.

"He said, 'Don't worry, coach, I got these guys,' " Chatman said. He got them, Chatman said, and Hernando won the meet.

"If he gets beat by all three of them, we lose. It's that simple."

There was more teamwork and toughness at the state championship in Jacksonville.

Chatman asked his best runner, Casey Isaac, not to go out with the leaders and try to win the race. It might cause him to fade at the end and cost the team the title. Isaac did as he was told.

Brian Major, the No. 2 runner most of the year, spent the day before the championship race in bed in his hotel room, gulping down fluids to fight a high fever.

"He got up the next day and hung on to have a pretty good race," Chatman said of Major, who finished seventh overall.

A more mellow side

So Chatman doesn't heap praise on his athletes or try to be their friend. Though not known as a screamer, he could even chew a kid out if he needed to.

And when his daughter, Beth Thompson, was growing up, he treated his children pretty much the same way.

"He didn't take us to the park just to swing on the swing. He'd want to play catch," said Thompson, a pitcher on the 2000 softball team. "I had good mechanics because he made me practice every day. … If you offered to go running with him, you would see the biggest smile on his face.''

He changed, she said, after he started coaching girls softball, which he will continue to do this year at Hernando Christian Academy.

"He's so much more mellow than he used to be, and a lot of that has to do with coaching girls," she said. "You can't just yell at a girl."

So maybe that explains his reaction when he told "probably the saddest story" of his coaching career, about Kimi Olmstead.

A star pitcher in 2000, she later developed arm problems and had to switch to shortstop, where she remained one of the best, most dedicated players on the team.

Near the start of her senior year, a base runner collided with her at second base.

Chatman ran out, took her hand, and could tell right away from the blood and the visible dent in her sliding pad that she was badly injured. It turned out she had broken her leg severely enough that she had to be flown by helicopter to a hospital in Tampa

"She asked me, 'Coach, do you think I'll be able to go to the prom tomorrow?' "

He finished the story by saying she recovered and went on play Division I softball at Colgate University in New York.

But first the no-nonsense disciplinarian, the famous technician, had to pause and wipe the tears from his eyes.

Hernando High's legendary coach Ernie Chatman recalls every detail 10/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2009 1:14pm]
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