As high school baseball seasons go, the plan is simple. Survive the district tournament, then it's a brand-new season, with five games separating a region qualifier from a state champion. Here's a look at five players who have embraced the spotlight in their own ways heading into Tuesday's region quarterfinals. All games at 7 p.m. unless noted.
Kenny Frey, Gaither
This time last season, Frey was playing tuba in the Gaither band. On Tuesday, he will get the biggest start of his life, pitching against reigning Class 6A champ Sarasota, the nation's No. 2 team according to USA Today.
Frey's transition from being cut from the varsity team last year to being the Cowboys' ace has been a physical one. The senior lost about 37 pounds in the offseason, cutting his weight down to about 220, coach Frank Permuy said.
"Before he was chunky in the wrong places," Permuy said. "He couldn't get off the mound."
The result was an impressive 6-1 record, 1.96 ERA and just 26 hits in 352/3 innings — not bad for a kid who had only pitched for his American Legion team before this year.
But Frey stepped up to anchor a Gaither staff that had just one returning starter. In Gaither's district quarterfinal win over Countryside, he threw a complete-game, three-hit shutout.
"The difference was his attitude," Permuy said. "Once he started losing that weight, you could see he had a commitment to baseball and to being a pitcher. He's definitely been our turnaround player. And now he's our No. 1 pitcher."
Michael Miller, Cambridge
This senior pitcher isn't physically opposing when you see him on the mound.
"When you first look at him, there aren't any oohs or ahhs," Cambridge coach Rick Shears said. "He's not 220 on the mound. He's about 6-foot-1, 180, but he's a leader on our team. His ability to pitch exceeds his age."
Miller was 7-1 this season, allowing just 36 hits in 54 innings, striking out 61 and walking 14. He doesn't throw overwhelmingly fast — he regularly hits the 80s — but Miller's key to success is his location.
While other pitchers are relying on talent, Miller has learned to be a true pitcher with pinpoint control, working both sides of the plate like a tactician. And he can credit former Jesuit standout, first-round pick and professional ballplayer Sam Marsonek, the Lancers' pitching coach who has taken Miller under his wing.
"He's been a great teacher," Shears said.
Derek Dungan, Brandon
The senior second baseman is a little guy, with his baggy pants and cap too big for his head. One of the keys to Brandon's late-season surge has been its defense, and there's no player who exemplified that more than the 5-foot-4, 135-pound Dungan. When Dungan combines with shortstop Spencer Haynes on a double play — it doesn't matter if it's 4-6-3 or 6-4-3 on the scorecard — it's a clinic. "As long as we get the first one out of the way, we're good," Dungan said. "Man, (Haynes) is like a brother to me. We're always together." Dungan, the Eagles' No. 9 hitter, has picked up his hitting, too. He was 3-for-9 in Brandon's district title run and has scored five runs in the past four games. "I think the other guys see me go 2-for-4 on the night and make a couple plays in the field and they say, 'Hey, if the little guy can do it, so can I,' " Dungan said.
Jake Lowe, Plant
In the offseason, doctors told Lowe he would never pitch again. After his last start of 2007, Lowe developed blood clots in his shoulder. His bones were growing too fast for his body and began pinching his veins. His entire arm swelled, he developed a pulmonary embolism in his lungs and he sat in a hospital bed for eight days.
"It's something I never thought I'd have to deal with," Lowe said, "especially at the age of 16."
He went to Alabama — and the office of renowned sports surgeon James Andrews — to get a second opinion. After two surgeries, which included shaving off his clavicle and removing his top rib on both sides, he began exhaustive rehab. Most of the season, he was relegated to DH duties
"In February, he couldn't throw a ball 5 feet," Plant coach Dennis Braun said.
Lowe made his first mound appearance March 28 and his first start while at the Saladino Tournament. In his second start, he held Hillsborough hitless for 52/3 innings and pitched a two-hit complete game.
Robbie Cribb, Tampa Prep
Cribb's parents will travel about 760 miles to see their son play in the Class 2A region quarterfinals Tuesday.
Cribb, a senior third baseman, graduated high school at 15 and came to Tampa from the Cayman Islands to attend prep school and play baseball, leaving his mother and father behind.
He ignored pain in his throwing shoulder until his father saw him play last month and noticed his son's throwing motion had changed. An MRI revealed a torn labrum, but Cribb is still playing, putting off surgery — and four months of recovery — until after the season.
"I've always had problems with it, but if my dad hadn't noticed, I probably wouldn't have told anybody," Cribb said.
Cribb, who hit .413, was 5-for-9 with four RBIs in Tampa Prep's district title run. He was also a member of Tampa Prep's Class 2A state champion boys soccer team and captained the recently crowned state champ Tampa Pelicans under-19 rugby team. He plans to attend USF and already has a spot on the rugby club team there.