Durant baseball coach Butch Valdes always says he's a teacher first, coach second.
This season, he has taught his players a lot about resiliency.
The Cougars (16-10) enter tonight's Class 5A Region Final against Lakeland High with quality pitchers, timely hitters, solid defense and a resolve steeled by repeatedly recovering from disappointment.
After Jefferson bounced the Cougars from the Saladino Tournament with a 10-1 victory in March, they bounced back with a 10-6 victory against Bloomingdale in their first game after the tournament.
After a crushing 1-0 loss to Armwood in April, they woke up the next morning and knocked off Plant City, then the district's top seed.
And after losing to underdog Riverview in the district championship game, the Cougars produced two playoff wins — including a 6-4 win over Riverview in a region semifinal rematch.
"If you look back at it, we've rebound and come back fighting the next game all season," said Valdes, a longtime high school assistant now in his third year as Durant's head coach. "They just go back to work. They don't quit, and they don't stop working.
"They weigh everything out and realize what they need to do."
Valdes credits this latest surge to practicing a simple fundamental, putting the ball in play and being smart on the base paths. It didn't hurt that he got a go-ahead two-run homer from Tyler Danish in the region semifinal win over Riverview.
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Pitchers Trey Oest and Emilio Ogando also have aided Durant's playoff run. Ogando, a hard-throwing left-hander, threw a complete game shutout in the Cougars' 2-0 victory over Spring Hill Springstead in the regional quarterfinal last week.
He'll get the start tonight at Joker Marchant Stadium, spring training home of the Detroit Tigers.
"He's one of our stud horses right now," Valdes said of Ogando (.283, 1.99 ERA).
"He's throwing the ball real well, and he's swinging the bat real well."
Oest (.295, 11 RBIs) also is a threat on the mound and at the plate. He'll start at first base tonight.
Lakeland (24-4) will counter with a team typically among the state's best. Dreadnaughts coach Bob Gendron will go with pitcher Brad Lavozzetta (9-1), a right-handed junior Gendron calls "our money guy."
Offensively, Lakeland will look to lead-off hitter Kevin Wortman, (.493, .657 on-base percentage) to be the catalyst, while University of Central Florida commitment Eric Barber (.376, 32 RBIs) brings power from the No. 3 spot.
With a 13-4 victory against Lake Wales in the quarterfinal and a 7-4 win over Winter Haven in the semifinal, Gendron feels good about the way his team is playing.
"Everybody talks about peaking at the right time, and that's become reality for us," Gendron said. "We're not as familiar with Durant, so that makes this game a little more intriguing, but our guys are definitely ready to go. They're chomping at the bit."
Valdes recognizes the challenge Lakeland presents, but he gains confidence from the fact that Durant played in one of the state's toughest districts and has faced the county's best throughout the season.
Earlier this season, the National Association for Sports and Physical Education named Valdes the Southern District high school physical education teacher of the year.
Before coming to Durant, Valdes helped the Turkey Creek Middle School PE program earn national recognition.
He really is a teacher first, and after tonight's game, he may be teaching the Cougars how to handle a trip to the state final four in Port St. Lucie.
Ernest Hooper can be reached at [email protected]