When Cambridge assistant coach Sam Marsonek first saw the Lancers practice this spring, he couldn't believe what he saw.
This was high school baseball?
"It was," said Marsonek, a former Jesuit standout and first-round draft pick who is now the Lancers pitching coach, picking out the polite words, "lower than I expected."
In early February, Cambridge didn't have a head coach until football coach Rick Shears volunteered to step in for the Lancers. Their home field, Doc Nance Field, is an adventure for fielders. The high school's student body of 192 lacks weight.
So how are the Lancers now 23-2 and two wins from the Class A state semifinals?
Cambridge, which hosts Bradenton Christian in the best-of-three Class A region final Friday (and Saturday if necessary), has done it the only way it can: with fundamentals.
The unforgiving field, with its heavy lip in front of the infield dirt and the rye grass browned from lack of rain (Doc Nance is a city field so with current water ordinances, it can be watered only once a week), never gives its fielders an out off.
Shears calls it the "Doc Nance Bounce," and after a whole season of practicing on it, even the youngest players can anticipate a bad hop.
"It definitely gives us a homefield advantage," Shears said.
They spend 30 minutes each practice bunting. As incentive, Shears once put a pair of dollar bills on the perfect bunting spots between the mound and the plate. If a batter's ball landed there, he got to keep the dollar. Meanwhile, baserunners practiced getting to the extra base.
"It's boring," said senior catcher Erik Shears, the head coach's son. "But it's a routine for us. In one of our games, we messed up a bunt play against Northside Christian and a guy went from first to third and we ended up losing. ... It's the little things that win games. And we've definitely improved on that."
It's no coincidence that the 3-2 loss to Northside Christian was Cambridge's only defeat in its past 16 games. The Lancers go into the region final having won five straight by a combined score of 52-9.
But now it's that combination of fundamentals — bunting, defense and baserunning — that makes it easy for the Lancers' top three pitchers of Michael Miller (9-1, 0.84 ERA), Matt Fishman (9-1, 1.26) and Logan McDougall (1-0, 1.75), for whom Marsonek has been an incredible influence.
"It's great, especially for a pitcher," Miller, Cambridge's likely Game 1 starter Friday said of a fundamentally sound team. "You have confidence in the defense behind you when the ball is hit. That's more my game, don't try to strike out guys, just let them put the ball in play."