Saturday, January 20, 2018
Sports

Pinellas: District baseball preview

ST. PETERSBURG — Northeast coach Rob Stanifer wanted to send a message.

It was early March and the Vikings were struggling yet again, this time in a home game against Berkeley Prep.

"I had enough so I saw the bats over there lined up against the fence,'' Stanifer said. "You can't really throw bats and it hurts too much to kick them, so I gathered them all up and put them in the trash can. The next inning we scored three runs. Before that, the bats belonged in that trash can.''

The Vikings rallied to win and haven't looked back. After an extra-innings loss to Pinellas Park on March 11, they have rattled off 14 straight wins.

Northeast (20-4, 9-1) is the top seed in arguably the county's toughest district, which includes East Lake, Countryside, Pinellas Park, Seminole and Clearwater. The only district loss was to the Patriots.

"Not a whole lot of superstars or flamethrowers,'' Stanifer said. "Just a solid baseball group. It's every coach's dream.''

That group includes 10 seniors, most of whom have played together since their Dizzy Dean league days at Fossil Park. Senior catcher/third baseman Bret Maxwell has led the offensive charge. He is hitting .478 with 10 doubles and 13 RBIs.

"I don't even think when I go up there anymore,'' said Maxwell, who will play at Florida State in the fall. "At the beginning of the year I was thinking too much. Now I just do it.''

Maxwell is not the only impact player.

Senior outfielder Chris Clark has provided speed and power. He is hitting .354 with 18 RBIs, three home runs and 20 stolen bases. Senior second baseman Jason Mugavero is hitting .308, and sophomore Will Condon is hitting .353 with 11 RBIs.

Perhaps the biggest question mark this season was pitching. Junior Colton Tison had a good sophomore season and this year he's 6-3 with 1.53 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 50.1 innings.

Reliever Jesse Moeller has a 0.36 ERA in 19.1 innings.

But the biggest surprise has been senior Josh Hale. Hale pitched sparingly last season and struggled with confidence. This season he is 5-0 with a 1.57 ERA and 34 strikeouts.

"Josh Hale really came out of nowhere for us," Stanifer said. "He's been really dominant. He's had his struggles the past three years but really bounced back well this season. He's been a great surprise for us.''

Hale said it was all about changing his style during the off season.

"During the summer I made the transition from being a thrower to a pitcher,'' Hale said. "I threw against some good competition and I learned the mental part of pitching.''

With the bats active and out of the trash can, and consistent pitching, the Vikings are rolling into the district tournament. As the No. 1 seed, they will play the Seminole vs. Countryside winner in the second round.

In recent years, Northeast hasn't been much of a playoff threat. But this season has a different feel.

"All the little things we seem to be doing right this year," Maxwell said. "That's what we've practiced all year, the little things. Those are the things that get you in games."

Aside from trashing the bats, Stanifer said it has been a fairly stress-free season. With plenty of senior leadership, he said he doesn't have to raise his voice much.

"They really work hard,'' Stanifer said. "They understand how to manufacture runs and be a team. It's been the most fun I've had coaching because I haven't had to yell a lot."

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