In 1998, when Dave Pano took over as baseball coach at what was then St. Petersburg Junior College, he kind of felt like a Realtor trying to sell a fixer-upper. The team just completed a 13-39 season, another in a string of losing seasons under former coach Ed Davis.
Some of the area's best players were skipping over St. Petersburg to play at other junior colleges. It was Pano's job to keep the talent home, and at first he was finding that very difficult.
"I couldn't even get the Pinellas County kids to come here,'' said Pano, who played baseball at Eckerd College and coached American Legion teams in Madeira Beach for several years prior to St. Petersburg College. "It was a struggle.''
So he went all over the state to find players to fill his roster. Miami proved especially fruitful. He found three starters, including Alfredo Amezaga, who is currently an outfielder for the Florida Marlins.
Pano's first team finished second in the Suncoast Conference and earned a berth in the Florida Junior College state tournament. The Titans have not missed a state tournament since.
They are heading to their 11th straight after winning the conference for the sixth time in eight years. SPC, which is ranked 19th nationally by the National Junior College Athletic Association, will play Broward Community College on Friday morning in Winter Haven. The Titans won the state championship in 2005 and finished second in the country.
With the success, St. Petersburg has become a destination for those wanting to play junior college baseball. At a junior college (which SPC is in athletics even though it now offers several four-year degrees), players can play only one or two years before turning professional. Players at a four-year school must complete three years before turning pro.
The Titans have produced several players that are now big leaguers. Nick Masset (White Sox), Bobby Wilson (Angels), Amezaga and Bryan LaHair (Mariners) are all in the majors or have been called up this season.
Pano thinks his school has become a destination for players wanting to become big leaguers, or Division I college players.
"With the kind of program we have become, with the kind of schedule we play, why would you not want to play here?" Pano said.
St. Petersburg made sense to second baseman Correy Figueroa. Figueroa went to Florida High in Tallahassee and could have stayed local or at least attended a Panhandle school. But he felt the right thing to do was head south.
"I just liked what they were doing down here,'' said Figueroa, whose twin, Cole, plays at Florida. "I came down to visit and liked the coaches. And the beaches were nearby. We don't have that in Tallahassee.''
The decision was rather easy for pitcher Donny Albro, who grew up in Gulfport and went to Boca Ciega High. He has emerged as the team's No. 2 pitcher with a 5-1 record and a 2.3 earned-run average.
"I still live at home so it's been an easy adjustment,'' Albro said. "I like the school, I like the coaches, I like my teammates. It's a great place for me to go.''
Of the 26 players on the SPC roster, six are from Pinellas County. The others are from all over Florida, as well as New Jersey, North Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana and even Canada.
"If you're going to get to the top and stay there, you're just going to have to work harder than the other guys,'' Pano said. "It's hard work when you're on the top. Everyone is out to get you.''
The Titans take another talented team into the state tournament. They are 36-17 thanks to a healthy .344 team batting average. There are 11 players who are hitting over .300 with at least 25 games played. Pitching has improved late in the season. Tommy Meagher of New Orleans leads the way with a 6-2 record and a 2.74 ERA in 91 innings pitched.
"We can really hit,'' Pano said. "But our pitching didn't really start to materialize until later in the year. We've been pitching very well in the conference at the end of the season.''
One negative for the Titans is that the team will go 19 days without playing a game. They have practiced and played scrimmage games at the Joe DiMaggio Sports Complex next to the Clearwater campus to fill the time.
"If our pitching keeps doing well, and our hitting continues, then we have a pretty good chance,'' said catcher Justin Dalles, who is hitting .387 with 70 RBIs. "This is why you come here, to play in the state tournament.''