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Full steam ahead for freshman

RON THOMPSON   |   Times
Eagles left-handed pitcher Brett Maggard is drawing the highest praise from his coach. “I’ve been coaching a very long time and he’s the best freshman I’ve ever had,” Frank Vitale says.

RON THOMPSON | Times Eagles left-handed pitcher Brett Maggard is drawing the highest praise from his coach. “I’ve been coaching a very long time and he’s the best freshman I’ve ever had,” Frank Vitale says.

BY JOEY KNIGHT | Times Staff Writer

SPRING HILL

When asked about the most adverse situation he has faced in his life, Brett Maggard pauses, but not for long. Considering he just turned 15, there are only about a dozen years upon which he can consciously reflect.

"I had tennis elbow when I was like, 12," the Springstead freshman says. "But I went through rehab and it was fine after that."

Translation: Maggard's biggest challenges lay ahead. Athletically, they'll likely arrive as the Eagles enter the formidable part of their schedule. The curve he started throwing only last summer could periodically get bashed. So could his pubescent psyche.

But so far, they haven't. The Eagles' leadoff hitter (.364) and left-handed ace (eight IP, 10 strikeouts, two walks, 2.63 ERA) is a big reason Springstead is off to a 3-0 start after winning only seven games in 2007.

"He's got a bright, bright future, there's no doubt about it," Eagles coach Frank Vitale said. "I've been coaching a very long time and he's the best freshman I've ever had."

The most promising rookie on the local baseball landscape is equal parts ambition and ambidexterity. Maggard, scheduled to start Tuesday against Pasco before inclement weather forced the game's postponement, already has a ton of mileage — literally — on his fledgling 160-pound frame.

Last year he played in 189 games while competing for a series of elite travel, Little League and fall-league clubs, all of varying age groups. The odometer on his dad's 2002 Ford Explorer — 276,000 miles — attests to his devotion. So does the full batting cage, complete with pitching machine, at the family's Brooksville home.

"He works real hard," said John Maggard, Eagles hitting coach and a Hernando multisport athlete in the mid 1980s. "Everyone says I push him. No, they're wrong."

If anything, John used to restrain his kid — at least the right arm.

When Brett was around 18 months old, his dad noticed he would alternate throwing his Wiffle ball with his right and left hands. Knowing the premium baseball places on southpaws, John tied a belt around Brett's right arm, forcing him to use only his left.

To this day, Brett bats and throws left-handed, but does essentially everything else — eat, bowl, brush his teeth — with his right.

"Left-handed pitchers," John said, "have an advantage."

In a 7-3 win over first-year Sunlake last week, Brett struck out eight in six innings and hit a leadoff homer. Vitale says his velocity currently sneaks into the low 80s, while his changeup — used off the same motion — serves as a solid complement.

And while perceptions surely abound as to his dad's motives, John argues his son's first love has always been hitting.

Until age 12, John says, Brett primarily played catcher. Even last year, John insists, he limited Brett to 80 pitches a week as he competed for — among other clubs — a 16-under travel team that won a national title, and the West Hernando Little League Junior Boys team (ages 13-14) that placed third in the state tournament.

During the course of that year, he grew 41/2 inches and put on 30 pounds.

"He said he was going to be the first player ever to sign a major league contract as a DH, because that's all he ever wanted to do was hit," John said. "I think the passions have turned a little bit."

So, it seems, have the Eagles' fortunes.

"He's always played up, always played with the older kids and has always done well," Vitale said. "And the one good thing about him is, even though he has played so many games, he hasn't pitched much.

"Now, he's just starting to get into the throwing phase."

Full steam ahead for freshman 02/26/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2008 8:12pm]
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