Sunday, December 17, 2017

Baseball: Middleton a study in perseverance

TAMPA — Rumblings of "here we go again" swept through Middleton's dugout after the Tigers gave up six unanswered runs to Blake, losing their 7-1 lead .

Middleton came into that April 8 game 0-17. For 12 boys and one new coach trying desperately to hold his team together, it was a familiar feeling.

"It's my job to keep them positive," coach Blake Nation said. "So I said, 'Hey, we're still winning, so let's go win.' "

The Tigers scored a run in the top of the seventh inning to tie the score at nine. The Yellow Jackets, though, had one more left in them and scored in the final frame to win 10-9.

Nation's Tigers had lost by as many as 28 runs prior to that night, and they would soon wrap up an 0-22 season, which followed a 2013 campaign that saw just a single win by forfeit. But, Nation said, it was never harder to address his team than after it came close, but just not close enough.

"I was almost ready to quit," centerfielder Kameron Lewis said. "But I love the game a lot. And I have this weird optimism that, hey, we are able to be a winning team."

• • •

Nation spent six years in professional baseball, three with the Seattle Mariners organization. But in September 2013 the former pitcher called it quits and moved to Tampa with his wife, a PhD student at USF.

The 27-year-old, who had spent two years as an assistant at East Georgia State College, was desperate to get back into coaching. Nation soon got set up with Plant coach Dennis Braun, a fellow Georgia Southern alumnus, and assisted the Panthers for several weeks in the fall.

Once Braun let him know about an opening for a head coach at Middleton, his days at Plant were numbered.

"He told me straight up, 'It's going to be a very, very tough gig,' " Nation recalled. "There was a lot of talent here — and there is — but it's just about keeping the kids eligible, keeping them motivated, getting them better and getting disciplined kids."

Nation inherited a team that went through the 2013 season with an interim coach, a guy Nation said didn't have much baseball experience. The Tigers finished 1-22 and team morale was low.

But it hadn't always been that way.

Vernon Slater, now an assistant at Strawberry Crest, coached the Tigers for six years, starting in 2006 when Middleton finished 21-7. Slater, who grew up in the area and attended Brandon High School, said his familiarity with his surroundings helped him find the talent and develop it.

"I never had a state team, but we did develop and we did get them to the point where they were competitive," said Slater, who said he had six players drafted and 30 receive college baseball scholarships. "Every time we went out to play, no matter what team we played, every team was worried about us."

Slater said he's not sure of the reason for the sharp dropoff — they've won just six games in three years — but thinks stability in the coaching position will help them get back on track.

That's exactly what Nation is determined to provide.

Twenty-two kids tried out in January; Nation kept 16. Many of the Tigers are now playing baseball again after taking a multi-year hiatus from the sport. Four have quit since joining the team, but for those that stuck it out, a common thread links them all.

"I love the game more than I love winning," said Lewis, who led the team with a .271 batting average.

The job is just as challenging as he was warned it would be, Nation said. But some of the greatest rewards have come with the hardships. And when his players finally take something they've learned and use it in a game, Nation can forget all about the score.

"Some of the guys here, they didn't really know the situational stuff behind baseball, then all of a sudden they do it, and you weren't expecting them to," Nation said. "They come in (the dugout), you give them a high five even though we're down by 20 runs."

• • •

Nation lights up when he talks about the possibilities next season will bring. He can easily point out the areas in which the team has grown in just a year.

The Tigers escaped the 10-run mercy rule to make it to the seventh inning five times last season, an improvement from the year before. They fell to district opponent Jesuit 21-0 in the fourth game of the 2014 season, but held the future state champs to just 11 runs the next time they met.

For junior catcher Logan Seligman, those things give him a reason to be hopeful.

"I just hope it carries on even more next year, to where we might even win a game," he said. "The wins we have next year, if any, will seem that much better, too."

Nation has already teamed up with new Middleton football coach Jeff George Jr. to help raise potential players' grade-point averages' to the 2.0 requirement. He's working on finding his kids a home to play summer ball, so they'll be even more ready come fall.

Because if he can keep them excited about the game and the little victories — even if they're not on the scoreboard — the rest will fall into place.

"If we can continue doing that, I guarantee you we can start winning some games," Nation said. "And they believe in that, too."

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