TAMPA — Jacqueline and David Hiatt's son, Mitchell, was just 12 years old, still years away from enrolling at Plant High School, when they got an email from a fellow Little League parent.
"If you want your kid to play Plant baseball," David Hiatt recalled, "this is what you've got to do."
Mitchell, now 21, eventually became the first of three Hiatt boys to spend time in the Plant High baseball program. But before they got there, just as the email advised, the Hiatts said they spent $1,100 a season, twice a year, to play for the Tampa Panthers — an under-14 AAU organization that uses a logo and colors similar to the high school and is managed and operated by current Plant baseball coach Dennis Braun.
If you didn't pay to play for the Tampa Panthers, parents and former Plant assistant coaches say, you'd likely never make the high school cut, creating an atmosphere that former pitching coach Scott Hurst, as well as former and current Plant parents, say is elitist and rigged to benefit the families who pay for offseason teams with which Braun is associated.
In his 11 years at Plant, Braun has been involved in three investigations, one by the school district in 2007 involving intimidation of a player and two by the FHSAA. The most recent one from the state came within the past year when it was discovered that all of Braun's varsity players participated on the same non-school summer team — except one player, who was later cut his senior year.
"There wasn't anything the FHSAA said needed to happen to Dennis Braun. There were some restrictions put on the program, absolutely," Hillsborough County athletic director Lanness Robinson said. "That issue was a year ago. There have been some people bringing it up, but that issue was put to rest."
That doesn't appear to be the case.
Hurst and a group of parents met with school board member Sally Harris to discuss their continued concerns with Braun and the baseball program in April, then later that month they did the same with Hillsborough County superintendent Jeff Eakins. After the 2016 season, Braun resigned, only to be reinstated by the school weeks later.
Braun, 49, says he has never mandated that his players participate on any specific AAU or summer team. Plant principal Robert Nelson, who declined to answer direct questions about the baseball program, said in a statement that he received an outpouring of support for Braun upon Braun's resignation.
"The coaching search began immediately and interviews were conducted for the position. During that search, most of the current players met with me regarding the positive impact Coach Braun has made on them and the program," Nelson said.
"A few weeks later, Coach Braun made a request to come back to his position as head coach of the baseball program. … I am confident in the direction of the program under Coach Braun's leadership into the future."
Hurst doesn't deny that Braun has had a positive impact on parts of Plant's baseball program, one that boasts three first- or second-round draft picks in the past seven years and four 20-win seasons during Braun's tenure at the school.
Still, he said, it's not the current Panthers, most of whom pay for years for their spots on the team, who have been harmed.
"The victims of this … are not the people on the team," said Hurst, who spent seven years working under Braun. "They're the kids from years and years who were cut because they didn't pay. It's not like you're going to be able to sit there and survey, because I don't remember most of the kids' names. Because they just never came back again."
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Martee Craparo is a Plant High alum, and her three eldest children all attended her alma mater. By the time her youngest child, Tommy, was preparing to enter high school, she said the family decided to look at other options.
They were concerned about the social setting Plant would provide for Tommy, and much of that had to do with baseball, something the youngest Craparo was interested in pursuing after high school.
"It was a well-known fact. If you wanted to play for Plant, you had to play on (the Tampa Panthers) team prior to going to Plant. It was expensive. We had three kids in college," Martee Craparo said. "We didn't have the ability to come up with the excessive amount of money that was required to go, so we basically made the decision that we weren't going to do it."
During the summer before Tommy's ninth-grade year, while he waited to be accepted at nearby Robinson High, Craparo said she took him to an American Legion tryout at Plant, where he was promptly rejected by Braun.
Craparo, now a pitcher at Ave Maria University, an NAIA school in southwest Florida, went on to spend four years on the varsity baseball team at Robinson, leading the Knights to a state semifinal appearance in 2015.
Unlike Craparo, Hurst and former Plant assistant coach John LaRocca say, not every student had other options to pursue.
While LaRocca and Hurst were with the Plant program, they were often in charge of coaching Plant's American Legion baseball team, a long-standing youth league known for its low costs in comparison to AAU.
When it was time to pick players for the Plant junior varsity and varsity squads each winter, LaRocca said he and Hurst would often point out American Legion players who deserved a shot. In one particular instance, LaRocca said, Braun cut a player they recommended, only to give him a varsity locker the next year after he began paying to play for the Tampa Panthers.
"It was a very quick process," LaRocca said. "And it's a similar situation for a lot of kids that are good enough to play for Plant, but chose not to play for the Panthers or the prospects team that Dennis does in the summer, and did not make the (Plant) team."
In other parts of Hillsborough County, feeder programs like the Tampa Panthers don't exist. Longtime Alonso coach Landy Faedo said his Ravens play on a variety of AAU and summer teams during the offseason. For Gaither coach Nelson North, who just delivered the school's first state championship in baseball in May, it's the same.
"My guys play for numerous different teams. I just didn't want to get into that AAU thing," he said. "I try to protect my guys. I think they play too much. I'm not going to ask them to play for me this summer, plus their AAU team."
After the 2015 season, Hurst stepped down from his volunteer position with Plant's baseball program. LaRocca, who played for Braun at Plant before coaching with him for 10 years, followed suit.
The final straw for both? That season, the Panthers boasted a pair of first-round draft picks in centerfielder Kyle Tucker, who was drafted fourth overall by the Houston Astros, and right-hander Jake Woodford, now with the St. Louis Cardinals. Despite that talent, the Panthers fell in the district tournament, never to see the state playoffs.
Hurst said it was just one example of Braun's coaching decisions being impeded by financial obligations.
"It was frustrating for us in 2015, we're sitting there really struggling as a team hitting wise and some issues on the field, and John and I are sitting there, 'Coach, we've got to get this player off the field. He's killing us,' " Hurst recalled. "The answer back was, 'Coach, you know who his dad is.' "
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After the 2015 season, the FHSAA began investigating the Plant program because of Braun's relationship with an offseason team. With the help of testimony from LaRocca and Hurst, the FHSAA found that during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, all varsity players participated on Braun's non-school team except for one — and he did not make the Plant squad that following season.
"This student-athlete was told by Coach Braun 'it was in his best interest to play with him (Coach Braun) during the summer,' " the FHSAA investigation report reads.
In regard to offseason teams, the FHSAA handbook states that "participation shall be voluntary and shall not be required, either directly or indirectly, for membership on an interscholastic team."
The high school restricted Braun from coaching Plant players during the summer, FHSAA investigator Justin Harrison said, a move that reduced the $2,500 penalty the school was assessed. Plant was instructed to pay a fine of $250, with the rest held in abeyance until June 2017 as long as the issues didn't persist.
"They actually took a big step, so we said, 'Great, the school is handling their end,' which is always what we prefer," Harrison said. "(Monitoring that further) is something the schools do on their own. … it's a self-governance type mind-set, if you will."
But Braun's involvement with Plant players in the offseason didn't end there.
In October 2015, every Plant High player in the class of 2017 and 2018 with the exception of one player competed in a travel ball tournament with the Scorpions Tampa. Also a coach in that organization? Braun.
On Jan. 6, Braun received an email from Scorpions baseball about player registration. "Please pass this link to your guys, the deadline is this SUNDAY," the email obtained by the Tampa Bay Times read. "Not many of your guys are signed up, and we need them there!!"
Days later, David Hiatt said he sat down with Braun to discuss summer plans for his son Sam, a sophomore on the varsity roster. Braun tried to convince Hiatt to sign his son up for the Scorpions, Hiatt said, but Sam preferred to play elsewhere.
Sam spent most of Plant's season that year on the bench — he's listed on the Plant roster for 2016 but not on the MaxPreps' stat sheet — until finally, with just a few weeks left in the regular season, Braun told Sam not to bother dressing out for a game, David Hiatt said, and he quit the team.
"This is what we're now raising up the FHSAA flagpole again," Hiatt said, "because I truly believe that Sam got the treatment he got because he opted not to play for the Scorpions."