NEW PORT RICHEY — For most high school athletes, life after senior year means leaving teammates behind. At Pasco-Hernando Community College, four former Mitchell High baseball players have been able to stay together at the next level.
Led by sophomore third baseman Matt Hart, they are cracking jokes and playing catch with one another like it's high school all over again under PHCC head coach Steve Winterling.
Hart has enjoyed a particularly strong sophomore season and expects to play next season on scholarship at a Division 1 college.
"I'm still undecided about where I'm going but it looks like I've got options," Hart said. "I feel confident with my glove after playing third here. I'm glad I played here for a few years because it allowed me to live at home and as far as school goes this has been good for me.''
"Matt is the class of the class," Winterling said. "He doesn't get upset and he doesn't get too excited. There aren't many like him. He plays the game the way it should be played.
Hart has helped PHCC overcome a 4-11 start. The Conquistadors are now 13-13 with 11 games left in the regular season. He is batting .402 and leading the team in RBIs with 29. He has six homers and hit 13 as a freshman when he made the all-conference team.
"With these new bats, we're finding out who the real hitters are,'' said Winterling, "and Matt is the real deal."
Winterling was referring to a switch this season to composite bats. New rules meant metal bats are no longer the standard in NJCAA baseball. Players now must use bats with an aluminum exterior and a graphite layer behind it. The new bats are more like the wooden bats used in the major leagues.
"I hated the new bats at first but I think we maybe just had to break them in," Hart said. "Once you get used to him it's actually nice because it brings back the old days of baseball. This year you can't just hit it off the handle and have it fly over the fence. The fact that I'm still putting up numbers and knocking balls off the fence makes me feel good."
For Winterling, it's not just the numbers that he is going to miss when Hart leaves. Rather, he admires the player's demeanor and professional conduct.
Outfielder Cody Vandeboe, one of the former Mitchell stars, says he constantly finds ways to learn from Hart.
"I learn a lot just watching him," he said. "Our team had good chemistry at Mitchell and now we have it on this team.''
Hart and Vandeboe are joined by former Mitchell players Doug Burlett (catcher) and Tim McCormick (pitcher).
"Mitchell has been the best baseball program on this side of the county for the last three or four years," Winterling said. "It says a lot about the work the coaches are doing over there. They all work hard and they're all good kids so this is a good place for them to develop."