PORT ST. LUCIE — Before this high school baseball season began, longtime King coach Jim Macaluso whispered to some of his coaching friends that he thought this year's team could be one of his best.
He approached the season with guarded anticipation. Macaluso, in his 35th season as King's coach, didn't want to jinx it. After all, the Lions had 13 combined wins the past two years.
But after a 2-1 region final win over Seminole on May 14, there was the 62-year-old Macaluso, riding the shoulders of his players as they carried him to the backstop of King's field. Cheering fans — including his 95-year-old mother, Katie; his wife of 36 years, Karen; and about 50 of his former players — were there to revel in the crowning accomplishment of a long career.
King was going to the state tournament for the first time since 1964, two years before Macaluso graduated from the school. After 31/2 decades as the coach, he finally punched a ticket to the dance.
In today's Class 5A state semifinal, the Lions (19-10) face Pensacola Pace (27-2), the No. 2-ranked team in the country by ESPNRise.
But right now, the Lions are the team no one wants to play. A sub-.500 team without any of the stars of the past who have come through this school — such as former major-leaguers Derek Bell and Calvin Pickering — became unbeatable in the postseason. Some might call them a Cinderella story.
The Lions beg to differ.
"I like the idea of being a Cinderella story," junior centerfielder Javaris Reynolds said. "But we're not here by mistake. We're winning for a reason, and we're here for a reason."
• • •
About once a week, Macaluso and Gaither coach Frank Permuy, two of Hillsborough County's veteran baseball coaches, eat lunch at Stefano, a neighborhood Greek-Italian restaurant in Temple Terrace.
Longtime friends, Permuy has pegged Macaluso the "Mayor of Temple Terrace" because there's rarely a time when someone doesn't come up and talk to them during lunch.
"Everybody knows him," Permuy said. "It's amazing. I think it's because nobody else had had that kind of success in one sport at that school. No one has had a run like him. And he's one of the friendliest people you'd ever meet. Now, he's a much different animal on the field, though."
Macaluso taught at King for 32 years, and three years before that, he was coaching baseball and football.
"Coach Mac is King High," King principal Carla Bruning said. "Everywhere you go, when someone finds out you're from King, one of the first questions is, 'Is Coach Mac still there?' He's an institution here. Even people who never played baseball know him."
On the field, one thing is for sure about Macaluso: He wants to win.
"I had never met a coach who wants to win as much as I do until I met Coach Mac," closer Karlton Knapp said. "He just has this look in his eyes. You know he wants to win so bad. And he pushes us to win in practice and in games. He's got that look."
• • •
Last year, Macaluso faced a choice. New rules made the 2008-09 school year his final year in the district's Deferred Retirement Option Program, meaning his teaching contract wouldn't be renewed. He always thought a coach should be on campus to handle daytime issues with players.
"I never wanted to leave coaching," Macaluso said. "I wondered if I could still coach the way I wanted to without being at the school every day. I always thought it was important to be there during the day to help my kids with any issues they have — school problems, girls, anything like that."
Though he's retired, Macaluso still has a workspace at the school to keep close to his players. And that probably helped because the beginning of the Lions' season was rocky. In mid March, they were barely a .500 team, and their resume included mercy-rule losses to Gaither by 18 runs and Alonso by 10.
"Kids were arguing about playing time and getting on each other in a negative way if someone made a mistake," senior leftfielder Cory Sullivan said.
Macaluso juggled his pitching staff and tweaked the lineup. But his kids also realized the bickering wasn't working.
"We all came together and said let's get it done," Knapp said. "We had all the tools, but we didn't have the tool box."
• • •
The tide turned at the Saladino Tournament over spring break. The Lions advanced to the quarterfinals, nearly upsetting defending 6A champ Alonso.
Since then, everything has been different. They've won seven straight, allowing two runs or fewer in five of those games. They earned revenge against Gaither in the district title game and won pitching duels with Bradenton Manatee, Venice and Seminole in the region tournament. Each of those games were won by two runs or fewer.
"Playing in those closer games and winning them gave our team a lot of confidence," rightfielder Sinjin Sato said. "After that, it let us know we can play with anyone in the state of Florida."
And finally, Macaluso has his trip to state.
"We did some things as a staff, and we pushed some buttons," Macaluso said. "But the bottom line is our kids played. And as a coach, you enjoy seeing the product all come together. That's very gratifying."