PLANT CITY — There was a telling moment in one of Durant's final practices of the season, one that eased coach Butch Valdes' mind.
And it involved a Cougar player getting pretty much beat up by the entire team.
Tyler Long hit a home run in batting practice Tuesday. Just so happens it was the first ball he's ever put over the fence, at any time, on his home field.
Tradition ensued. Long went crazy and then braced himself. Players who had been milling around the outfield quickly realized what had happened and a mad dash was on, straight for Long.
He was dog-piled.
"There you go," Valdes said. "Just like any other practice. You just saw a bunch of guys having fun, not even care if they were going to get hurt. That's a good thing."
And that's the idea Valdes has carried into Durant's first-ever trip to the state baseball tournament. As much as possible, he wants the Cougars to treat today's Class 8A state semifinal against Hialeah American at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers no differently than any other game situation.
Valdes has been pretty good about having his ideas work. But being that he's only in his fourth year as a head coach, Valdes hasn't been shy about getting advice.
He talked to Alonso's Landy Faedo, author of two recent state titles. And to Brandon's Matt Stallbaumer whose team made the 7A final last year. Always reliable for advice, legendary Jefferson head coach Pop Cuesta sent some encouragement to his former player.
"He said, 'Remember to have fun,'" Valdes said. "'Let the kids enjoy it. And keep them together.'"
Taking that to heart, Valdes had the Cougars staying in a hotel apart from family in Fort Myers.
Doubtless he will do whatever it takes to get the title, if for nothing else to get his brother off his back. Mike Valdes won a national championship as a pitcher for the University of Tampa.
"He shows me that ring every chance he gets. So it would be nice to get one, but more importantly these kids deserve it," Butch said.
Tyler Danish is one of those "kids" — though he's played like a man all year, leading the Cougars with a .415 average and eight homers while not allowing up an earned run all year as one of the state's top pitchers.
He can vouch that Valdes hasn't changed just because of this whole state tournament business. Specific to Danish, and smartly, Valdes hopes to repeat the successful regional "7-4-3" equation. A pitcher is limited to 10 innings at state, so the hope is Danish goes seven Friday morning against Hialeah American, Chaz Fowler tosses the first four in Saturday's final, with Danish closing the final three.
Aside from strategy Valdes certainly isn't going to alter his demeanor. The coach isn't afraid to jump on a player if necessary.
"There are some times he'll get after you," Danish said. "But we don't take it to heart. The motto around here is you have to have thick skin. He'll let you know what you need to hear."
That extended to encouragement during Durant's region final win against Timber Creek, the first time the Cougars faced a deficit this postseason.
Danish said Valdes told them every state championship team falls behind at some point, and the important part is jumping right back on the scoreboard. And that's exactly what Durant did.
"That's the guy he's always been," said Gary Graham, longtime friend and fellow Bloomingdale assistant with Valdes in the late 90's. "He knows where to put his hand, that's whether it be a pat on the shoulder, or ... a smack in the (posterior)."
Part of Valdes' coaching approach comes from his long experience as a physical education teacher. In 2011, the National Association for Sports and Physical Education named Valdes the Southern District high school physical education teacher of the year.
Before coming to Durant, Valdes helped the Turkey Creek Middle School PE program earn national recognition.
Before he takes a chance as earning greater recognition at the state tournament today, Valdes recognized the singing talents of daughter Jacqueline. The Durant junior , a gave her first chorus solo on Thursday night.
"Yeah, Thursday night. We play at 10 a.m. (today)," he said. "Asked her when exactly will she be singing and it was 'Dad, it'll be sometime between 7 and 9. It'll happen when it happens."
Whatever time it is Valdes wasn't going to miss it. And come Saturday at roughly the same time, the Cougars hope to be singing a championship tune.
Darek Sharp can be reached at [email protected]