TAMPA — His young King High baseball team had been learning as it went all season. Heading into the Class 6A, District 9 championship game against Jefferson on April 24, coach Jim Macaluso knew that, despite the stakes, that night would be no exception.
The district final was to be broadcast on Bright House Sports Network as the game of the week, so as King's starters — more than half of them underclassmen — took the field, TV cameras tracked their every move.
It didn't take long for Macaluso's fears about his inexperienced team playing with the added attention to materialize.
"They were just a little nervous, because we had a lot of cameras out here," senior pitcher Tyeler Checkley said. "Once you get into the moment and everything starts messing up and there's a bunch of errors, you don't know how to come back from it."
King committed six errors on the way to an 11-1 loss to the Dragons in six innings, a stat line that would have been unheard of for a 2013 King squad that lost just four games by a combined eight runs on the way to a state final four berth.
But in some ways, the current Lions might not be so different from their predecessors after all.
Macaluso's team will compete today in a region final against Venice with a return trip to Fort Myers and the state final four on the line. It's a playoff run the 39-year coach admits he couldn't quite predict when the season began.
He's perfectly content, though, with the Lions' continual efforts to prove him wrong.
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It wasn't as though Macaluso didn't have faith in his kids, he said. He was just trying to be realistic.
The Lions graduated 12 seniors from their 2013 state semifinal team, including right-hander Brett Morales, a current University of Florida pitcher who was also selected in the 24th round of the major league draft by the Cincinnati Reds. Macaluso's starting shortstop, one of the most integral defensive positions on the field, was also gone.
But just as they always are, the holes were filled. And much to Macaluso's delight, unexpected results followed.
Freshman Ethan Thomas, who has contributed 14 RBIs, has started every game at shortstop. At first base sits sophomore Kobe Barnum, who last season didn't even dress out for some of the varsity games, but whose two-run homer helped lift the Lions (22-5) over Leto in the district tournament.
"A freshman shortstop in this conference is not supposed to step in and contribute like he did," Macaluso said. "They're overachieving, not because of where they're at or their talent, they're overachieving because of their experience."
With a freshman starting pitcher and underclassmen scattered all over the field, Macaluso came into the most recent campaign hoping his guys would stay around .500 through the beginning of the season, leading up to the annual Saladino Tournament.
The Lions didn't lose their first game, 3-2 to Plant, until a month in. And as the wins began piling up, Macaluso's thoughts about what his Lions could really achieve began to change.
"As the season went, I felt better and better. Starting 9-0, it just really built them up," Macaluso said. "You can't read that in a textbook or watch a video and get that experience. They got that experience and they won and they started learning how to win."
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They may have been 10-run mercy ruled in their district championship game. But for the Lions, that disappointing ending to the regular season wasn't for naught.
Having to play their subsequent playoff games on the road, the district runners-up showed new life in region quarterfinal and semifinal wins against Mitchell and Osceola, Macaluso said. Just like in the televised game against Jefferson, the crowds were huge for both contests. But this time, it didn't seem to faze the Lions.
As they had done all year, they learned and moved on.
Macaluso credits his group of nine seniors — including ace Checkley, Emory signee Bubby Terp and catcher Jose Lopez — for leading the way, carrying on the tradition the senior class before them left behind.
And it's their experience on the big stage — the very one to which the Lions hope to soon return — that may be the biggest lesson they've passed down.
"They've showed us what it's like to be in that situation in the big game," Thomas said of his senior teammates. "They've been able to show us and calm us down, that it's just another game. And we're a good team, so we know how to win.