BRANDON — A week ago today, Brandon High School capped off a remarkable run through the annual Tony Saladino Tournament with a 5-3 win against Hillsborough.
For a baseball team that starts seven sophomores, the championship was impressive.
But it was what happened the Monday before the tournament that impressed Brandon's sixth-year coach nearly as much.
Brandon field, the tournament's home site for the second straight year, needed some work due to heavy rain the night before. Coach Matt Stallbaumer pulled into the parking lot at 8 a.m. sharp and was greeted by an unlikely sight: Eagles players standing by the dugout with rakes and bags of dirt in hand.
"I truly couldn't believe it," he said. "They got there half an hour before I did."
The sight confirmed what Stallbaumer had suspected — the Eagles were ready for the prestigious tourney.
"I mean, some of these kids aren't even old enough to drive so that means they had to drag their parents out of bed to beat me there," Stallbaumer said. "That was a good sign."
If the Eagles were eager to prep the field for the tournament that crowns the best team in the county, it's because Brandon was ready to show the world that they were more than just a bunch of 15-year-olds.
"They wanted it," Stallbaumer said. "And they took it one game at a time and got it done."
And it wasn't a fluke. The buzz around the tournament centered on the expected matchup between Plant and Alonso, a pair of teams ranked among Florida's Top 5 in their respective classifications.
"We won our pool, which was our goal from the beginning of the year and then was staring Plant dead in the face," Stallbaumer said. "The kids had heard all the talk about Plant and Alonso meeting and their mind-set was to pull together and see what could happen."
For Stallbaumer, it was quite a week. His daughter, born just before the Saladino tournament last year, was now old enough to bop around the ballpark with her dad. His beloved Kansas Jayhawks — Stallbaumer grew up 20 miles from Lawrence — won the NCAA basketball title. And, of course, the Eagles took home the Saladino championship for the sixth time, tops in tournament history.
"Man, it seemed like all the stars were lined up just right," he said.
Stallbaumer said the community support was overwhelming.
"I mean, there was not a place to sit (for the final)," he said. "Brandon is the oldest school around here and it has a lot of tradition. I had people of all ages coming up to me telling me they were behind us."
But now Stallbaumer will face what he calls "the toughest coaching job of my life." The district tournament starts next week, and he'll have to get his young team's head out of the clouds if the Eagles are to do something no other Saladino champion has ever done — win a state title in the same year.
"Now people want to come out and beat the team that won the Saladino," he said. "It's always harder to stay on top than get there, and we're riding high right now, but we need to refocus if we want to reach the next level."