At first glance, Pinellas Park pitcher David Aupperlee doesn't appear too intimidating. The senior stands a lanky 6 feet, 170 pounds with a crew cut and an earring.
He is admittedly a shy, introverted 18-year-old who didn't play baseball his first two years of high school after competing throughout Little League. Last year, he posted less-than impressive statistics going 1-3 in 22 innings, allowing 26 hits and 25 walks. He was switched to catcher to fill the void left by Adam Agosto, who transferred to Dixie Hollins.
Batting left-handed for the first time, he hit a paltry .071. This year, he has turned his game _ as well as his life _ around. Both will be on display when Aupperlee leads the Patriots in the third game of the Dunedin Spring Baseball Tournament, which begins at 3 p.m. today and runs through Friday.
Aupperlee has gotten control of his pitches and is 2-0 thanks in part to his fastball, which approaches 90 mph. He is averaging 2.3 strikeouts to every walk. As one of four Patriot seniors, he has assumed a share of the leadership role and his 1.73 ERA leads the team.
Senior Paul Hartman, Aupperlee's friend since third grade, has taken over the catching duties and provided good chemistry as his battery mate. Aupperlee tossed a one-hitter over 6 innings against Lakeland, before the Patriots lost 2-1 in extra innings. He has switched back to batting right-handed, and is slowly improving at .194.
"Not until high school did anyone try to teach me to play," Aupperlee said. "I do a lot of conditioning, a lot of running. I have leg muscles and flexibility in my arm, when you have that you can throw hard. You don't have to be all bulky to play baseball."
Aupperlee also has gotten control of himself off the field. He has grown up _ in a hurry.
He is a dad.
Seven months ago, Aupperlee's girlfriend of nearly two years, Brianna Belivis, 17, also a student at Pinellas Park, gave birth to their son, Tyler. The newborn has forced Aupperlee to make adjustments in his life.
"He's dealing with something you don't need to deal with as a kid," Pinellas Park coach Ken Clawson said. "(Last year) he had real bouts with immaturity. He has matured a ton."
Aupperlee recently quit his job of two years at Taco Bell to make more time for baseball and family. That change has helped his pitching as well as his grades. He turned in a 3.67 GPA last marking period _ the best he has ever had.
As focused as he is, he still experiences normal growing pains. He calls his relationship with Brianna "shaky at times but we always get through it" and says he tries to "stay out of trouble" when peer pressure looms.
His mother, Delores Aupperlee, has been a constant supporter, David said. But when he needs a little something extra, all he has to do is look at Tyler.
"I think about him all the time, even when I'm out there (on the mound)," Aupperlee said. "I'm focused. A lot of times that's where I reach out. He's always smiling."
Aupperlee, who also has discussed marriage with Brianna, is no longer one of Pinellas County's best kept secrets. He has proven to his coaches he deserves to be out there and wants to win.
"He is definitely right now a solid JUCO prospect," Clawson said. "The kid can definitely help somebody."
Right now, that somebody is a boy named Tyler.
28th annual Dunedin Spring Tournament
WHO: A 16-team field from Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.
WHERE: Dunedin Stadium and Englebert Complex.
WHEN: Today through Friday.
ABOUT THE TOURNAMENT: Host Dunedin has won the double-elimination event 10 times, but not since 1992. Two-time defending champion Clearwater is young and off to a rocky start. That could put the Falcons back on top with Pasco figuring to be tough as well.
SCHEDULE: Today at Dunedin Stadium _ Dunedin vs. Zephyrhills, 3; Clearwater vs. Ridgewood, 5:30; Tarpon Springs vs. Springstead, 8:30; At Englebert _ East Lake vs. Pinellas Park, 6; Dixie Hollins vs. Pasco, 6:30; Countryside vs. River Ridge, 7. Monday at Dunedin Stadium _ Clearwater-Ridgewood winner vs. Dixie Hollins-Pasco winner, 6; East Lake-Pinellas Park winner vs. Countryside-River Ridge winner, 8:30; At Englebert _ Northeast vs. Brooksville Central, 6; Clearwater-Ridgewood loser vs. East Lake-Pinellas Park loser, 6; Hernando vs. Largo, 6:30; Dixie Hollins-Pasco loser vs. Countryside-River Ridge loser, 8. Tuesday at Dunedin Stadium _ Dunedin-Zephyrhills winner vs. Hernando-Largo winner, 5; Tarpon Springs-Springstead winner vs. Northeast-Brooksville Central winner; At Englebert _ Consolation bracket, 6, 6:30 and 7. Wednesday at Dunedin Stadium _ Semifinals, 5:30 and 8; At Englebert Complex _ Consolation bracket, 5:30, 6, 7, 8, 8:30. Thursday at Dunedin Stadium _ Consolation brackets, 5 and 7:30. Friday at Dunedin Stadium _ Consolation bracket, 5; Championship, 8.