As district rivals Newsome and Brandon play each other for the fourth time today, a trip to the Class 5A region final is on the line. The teams started the season against each other, played two one-run games and decided a district title. One will end the other's season today.
Then there's the personal side. Newsome coach Zach Walker and Brandon coach Matt Stallbaumer are good friends. In fact, when Stallbaumer was switching apartments several years ago, Walker opened his home to him and let him crash on the couch. Family dinners, Super Bowl parties, they've been there together. And they share a mutual admiration for each other as people and coaches, so regardless of the outcome, it will be bittersweet.
"There's definitely a personal side to it," Stallbaumer said. "You have the friendships. And these kids grew up playing together. In the summer, a lot of them will play together. It's different between these teams."
Because they know so much about each other, the Times asked each coach to talk about the other one and how his counterpart led his team to this point:
Zach Walker, Newsome
Walker's first year at Newsome — he has coached at Riverview and Tampa Bay Tech — included its share of distractions.
But after the demeanor of their coach, the Wolves never panicked. Walker wouldn't have it.
The first test was early, when Newsome lost its first three games then won 11 straight games. The Wolves hit another four-game skid but won five straight to reach the district final.
Walker was without his top left-hander, Kyle Parker, for nearly a month because of injury (Parker will make his first start back today). The team's starting catcher quit during the district tournament. And he was without ace pitcher and cleanup hitter Kris Castellanos (violation of team policy) in Tuesday's region quarterfinal. Bench players had to pick the Wolves up, and No. 3 pitcher Brian Skonicki had to take a bigger role.
But Walker always stayed the same.
When he heard Castellanos would miss the game, Walker never showed any worry and calmly gave the ball to Skonicki in homeroom and simply told him, "Go win." Skonicki threw a four-hitter in Newsome's 4-1 win over Land O'Lakes.
"You read that and you know that he has all the confidence in the world in his kids," Stallbaumer said. "His kids buy into that. There's never any panicking. There's no real up and downs. He keeps them levelheaded. I think that shows that he really believes in his players."
Matt Stallbaumer, Brandon
In late March, Brandon was clustered in an anonymous district race, but something happened, and the Eagles went on a roll.
They haven't lost a game in 36 days, a span of 13 straight wins that included Saladino Tournament and district titles. During the streak, the Eagles have been down many times late in games but emerged victorious every time.
"It's because of Matt," Walker said. "He's one of the best game coaches in the county. He's one of the upper-echelon coaches in this county. It's hard to outguess or outthink him."
The Eagles' batting order is strong from top to bottom, and Brandon arguably had the best defense in the league.
But Walker said Stallbaumer's greatest strength is his ability to put his players in situations where they can succeed, especially when it comes to his pitching staff, which has no true ace but has four pitchers — Dan Trnka, Austin Browder, Cory Schools and reliever Chase Sparkman — with at least three wins, ERAs of 3.85 or lower and 33 innings each.
"He's phenomenal at that," Walker said. "He has that pitching staff pitching at or above its ability level. … He's not afraid to break the book and make calls that go against the book. He can make calls I would never dream of making. But it works for him. He's the reason why they can come back to win 5-4 (in the region quarterfinals)."