SPRING HILL — The only varsity baseball coach in Bishop McLaughlin history looked relaxed on another piping hot May afternoon.
This was one of those rare shorts and T-shirts days of batting practice, a light workout to take the edge off what will be the program's biggest game.
Beneath the brim of a dark blue hat with the stitched logo similar to one the Milwaukee Brewers once wore, a black-bearded Nick Rodriguez gave firm commands to his players.
"Go three bunts, four hit-and-runs then two rounds of five," Rodriguez said.
The Hurricanes scattered across the field as if taking part in some Super Bowl halftime show. A few took their swings in the batting cage, and the familiar sound of metal against baseball echoed across an expansive field of clay and grass littered with baseballs.
Tonight, Bishop McLaughlin will host Shorecrest in its first region final. The winner advances to the Class 2A state semifinals.
"We're hoping to have the biggest crowd we've ever had," Rodriguez said. "It's been an exciting year because no one expected this from us."
Rodriguez took over the program in 2005 after its inaugural junior varsity season. His hope has always been to build one of the area's strongest teams and get mentioned with teams such as Jesuit and Tampa Catholic.
To some, this has been an improbable run.
The Hurricanes graduated nine seniors, including five starters, from last year's club. Despite an 0-3 start, players such as pitcher David Heintz believed in this group of 17 players.
"Even though our first three games of the year were losses, I thought we were something special that first game," Heintz said. "We're playing Palm Harbor, a big 6A school, and we led 5-1. I know we lost that game (6-5 in eight innings). But we had that energy, the type of play you need to be successful."
After those losses, including to 3A Sarasota Cardinal Mooney and 2A Bradenton St. Stephen's, Bishop went on a nine-game win streak.
The transition began last season, when Rodriguez put together a tougher nondistrict schedule with no team lower than 2A. That team finished 11-14. During the summer and fall, the Hurricanes tangled with the North Suncoast's best: Springstead, Pasco and Wesley Chapel. They won the Saint Leo fall league, defeating Wiregrass Ranch in the championship.
"What people forget when they look at the total number of things is I play with nine players on a field and they play with nine players on a field," Rodriguez said. "My top nine are as good, if not better, than their top nine. My 17th is not what their 17th is."
Depth has been a concern because the Hurricanes, like many teams, are contending with minor injuries. So it has been key to have consistency on the mound. The trio of Heintz, T.J. Wharton and Cy Beerman have combined for a 17-6 record and 116 strikeouts.
Rodriguez would not commit to naming a starter for tonight's game. Heintz and Wharton are content with whomever starts, realizing there's a good chance both will likely play.
Asked if he had a favorite moment from the season, Wharton said: "Not yet. Hopefully not yet."
Izzy Gould can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 421-3886.