By BRYAN BURNS | Times Staff Writer
As a basketball player growing up in Indiana, Steve Plummer recalls a coach he once had as a senior in high school, a taskmaster who was as involved in his team's exploits off the court as its play on it.
"He was really big on getting together outside the gym, so he'd organize some things and let us run with it once he did it," said Plummer, in his first year as Tarpon Springs' softball coach. "And I just remember how important that was."
It's a mantra heard repeatedly around locker rooms: the team that plays together stays together. It was an idea Plummer applied immediately to the Spongers — a team stuck in a district behind the hierarchy of Palm Harbor University and East Lake in recent years, and Zephyrhills beyond that — when he got the job right after school started.
The first thing he did was put his girls together on a travel ball team, to play extra games together in the fall until the start of the season.
"A lot of people criticized me for it," he said. "People told me, 'You'll never be competitive in travel ball because teams there are like all star teams.' I said, 'I don't really care. My whole point is to get them playing together.' We got our teeth kicked in a lot of times in these travel ball tournaments, but I knew it would pay off down the road."
And it has.
Inheriting a team that had just two playoff appearances and no playoff victories in its long history, Plummer has led Tarpon to a 6-1 record and, more importantly, a 6-0 mark at the top of the Class 6A, District 9 standings. The Spongers led East Lake 10-0, nearly enforcing the 10-run rule in the fifth inning, before beating the Eagles by four, and they later knocked off their longtime nemesis, the Hurricanes.
The win was Tarpon's first over PHU.
"After the game, the parents went and got us some pizza," said senior Michelle Mennone, the team's cleanup hitter. "We pretty much had a party right after the game on the field."
Which is just what Plummer wants to see: players continuing to bond long after the final out has been recorded.
He preaches a family atmosphere and backs it up by organizing team trips to the bowling alley or movie theater, by encouraging the girls to eat together before and after games.
"This," junior Autumn Gill said, pointing to the field, "is my second home. We've all become just a big family. That's what families do, they go out to dinner and do things together."
They do things like win together.
"I've been coaching basketball for three years and have eight wins," said Plummer, who coached the Tarpon boys team to six wins this past season, two in his sophomore campaign, and zero his first year. "I have six wins, in what, three weeks, four weeks in softball. … Someone once told me you can be the best coach in the world, but if you don't have any playmakers, it doesn't matter. Well, we've got playmakers here."
Playmakers like leadoff batter Danielle Labella, who paces the county with three home runs, and shortstop Jen Hunter, who spends her spare time pitching for the USA Baseball women's national team. Or freshmen pitchers Annie Causey and Jessica Allen, who provide a solid 1-2 punch of speed and control, respectively.
"They're just a great group, and I'm not easy to play for," Plummer said. "They know I'm serious about this, and I don't want to let them get complacent because they've had some wins.
"But so far, so good."