Saturday, December 16, 2017
Sports

Long-standing Dunedin Spring Classic weathers changes

In 1969, Dunedin High baseball coach and athletic director Howard Godfrey decided to start a spring baseball tournament. Northeast, behind pitcher Nick Hockett, won the first ever Dunedin Spring Classic.

Little did anyone know that would be the first of 46 more spring tournaments. Longtime Dunedin coach Greg Nichols took over in 1970 and built it up throughout the years. Games were played at both Englebert Complex and Dunedin Stadium.

More recently, Englebert has been the sole site of the tournament. By the time Ron Sexton took over the Dunedin program in 2014, the Toronto Blue Jays were making noise about possibly getting the tournament moved off of their training site.

Traditionally, the tournament was played during the week of Pinellas County's public schools' spring break. That is usually sometime in late March, when the Blue Jays major- and minor-league clubs are still in Florida.

An agreement between the city of Dunedin and the Blue Jays was reached just after last year's tournament. Englebert would be available, but only during the week of April 17, after the Blue Jays and some of their minor-league teams broke camp. Teams could use three of the fields for games at 6 and 8:30 p.m.

After consulting coaches to make sure the date was acceptable, Sexton was able to keep the tournament going.

"I didn't want to see this tournament end on my watch," Sexton said. "It's the longest-running tournament in the entire state. Not only do I want to see it get to 50 years, I'd like to see it go well beyond that."

Sexton has had to show a lot of patience in keeping the tournament going. In his first year as head coach, the tournament was plagued by bad weather. One day was completely washed out by rain. The final between Clearwater Central Catholic and Osceola was pushed to Saturday. Rain fell that day and the tournament was canceled. For the first time in tournament history, no tournament champion was crowned.

Then he had to wonder for the next two years if he would be able to keep the tournament going.

"I already felt guilty about not crowning a champion in my first year," Sexton said. "Thankfully, the city was able to impress upon the Blue Jays the importance of this tournament to the people in this community. The Blue Jays have been very understanding."

Many of the usual suspects are entered. Aside from host Dunedin, East Lake, Pinellas Park, Northeast, Clearwater Central Catholic and Palm Harbor University are tournament regulars.

And it helps that the tournament is not during the last week of the regular season.

"It's two weeks before districts so that's not bad," Northeast coach Rob Stanifer said. "It's not like you're worried about saving your pitching or anything. You've got the week after to get ready."

Not only are the dates different, but so are the starting times. Game times have been moved back an hour to 6 and 8:30 p.m. Because of that, a time limit will be used for all games before the semifinals and final. No inning can start after two hours and 15 minutes.

The only out-of-area team is Inspiration Academy of Bradenton. Extra Innings of Clearwater is a late replacement for IMG Academy.

Win or lose, each team is guaranteed three games.

"It's a run-up to district play," Sexton said. "It's a chance to get your pitching tuned up. I think that's one of the things coaches like about it."

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