BRANDON — When Brandon baseball coach Matt Stallbaumer needed help molding his talented young arms into the kind of pitchers that could lead the Eagles into the playoffs, he called on Ernie Johns, the gray-bearded man who just couldn't stay away from Don Powell Field.
Johns, who had been Brandon's pitching coach from 1994 to 2004, was an assistant on the most recent Brandon team to win a region championship — 13 years ago. He watched most Eagles games from the bleachers last season, internally critiquing each pitcher. After last season, Stallbaumer posed a question.
"Wanna come along for the ride?" he asked Johns.
Johns has helped mold the Eagles pitching staff into the anchor of a Brandon team that is riding a 14-game winning streak and is two wins away from the school's sixth region title.
Each of Brandon's six pitchers tried it all, from starting to middle relief to closing. Four of them — senior Dan Trnka, junior Cory Schools, sophomore Austin Browder and freshman Chase Sparkman — each has pitched at least 38 innings heading into today's Class 5A region final doubleheader against Winter Haven.
"We didn't have an ace then, and we still don't have an ace," Johns said. "They're all aces when we need them on the mound. … They've figured out how to work themselves out of trouble. I think I've gone to the mound (for visits) just three times this season."
A look at the three pitchers who will likely play keys role today against the Blue Devils:
Game 1 starter
Season stats: 5-1, 2.83 ERA,
Scouting report: Rewind to last summer, when Browder, coming off a nice freshman season, heard a pop in his arm three starts into his AAU season, shelving him for six months with elbow tendonitis. He admits now that he didn't buy into Johns' teachings early on. "I thought I was all big and bad and didn't need the drills and stuff," he said. Johns has refined his motion, where Browder relies on his legs more, and he's pain free. And he has realized that the strikeouts will come with patience. He has a team-high 54 in 42 innings.
Highlight: Take your pick. Browder was the winning pitcher in Brandon's 10-3 district final win over Newsome and its 9-3 win over the Wolves in the region semifinal. Combined he allowed three earned runs in 92/3 innings and struck out 12.
Game 2 starter
Season stats: 5-0, 2.03 ERA
Scouting report: Schools is literally just learning how to control his body. He grew 8 inches in the summer between seventh and eighth grade, causing weakness in his vertebra that forced him to miss time his freshman year. "I couldn't twist at all," Schools said. "I kind of had to learn how to pitch all over again." A year after the injury, he now is strong enough to handle the innings that come with being a starter. Control is his key. He has walked only five batters in 38 innings.
Highlight: He was a part-time starter this season, but he started in two of the Eagles' most important games. Schools didn't get the decision, but he allowed two earned runs in 61/3 innings in the Saladino final against hot-hitting Hillsborough, scattering eight hits. And he earned the win in Brandon's region quarterfinal win over Wesley Chapel, giving the Eagles a quality start.
Season stats: 7-0, 2.21 ERA,
Scouting report: Sparkman's stuff isn't overwhelming, but he can throw three pitches — fastball, curveball and changeup — for strikes and mix them up in any count. He's not a big strikeout pitcher, willing to let batters put the ball in play and let his defense do the work. He was primarily a reliever in AAU as an eighth-grader but didn't expect to jump into the closer's role as a freshman. "I didn't know what to expect, but now I know I can hang with everyone." As for him being a freshman: "We used to think about that early on," Stallbaumer said. "But we don't even think of him as one now."
Highlight: Sparkman retired 10 straight Plant batters in relief in Brandon's 4-2 Saladino quarterfinal win then earned wins in the tournament semifinal and final.