Lance Robinson took off his catcher's mask, looked out onto the field and saw he was alone. The eight other faces on the field for Hernando had never known varsity baseball.
Just last year, he was catching for a Leopards team full of talent and experience _ a team of seniors. Now a senior himself and the only returning starter for Hernando, Robinson trudged through a season of education for the young Leopards. But along the way, he found he too learned with every game.
Robinson didn't have to do much last season. Sure, the team counted on him to catch nearly every game, but his pitchers were long on skills and maturity. All he had to do was crouch down and prepare for a perfectly placed pitch. It was a staff, Robinson admits, that made him look great at times.
"Last year I had it easy," he said. "I could sit back and they would pick it up for me."
This season, he has spent much of the year picking pitches out of the dirt and taking one-hoppers in the chest, neck, face and thighs. A new and young pitching staff had him learning midway through the season what it meant to be the senior on a young team.
Not only were the pitchers' skills unrefined, so was their knowledge. For most of the season, Robinson kept quiet and let the coaches take over when a pitcher wasn't able to decide where to throw. He often let the pitchers make their own decisions, and eventually their own mistakes.
"I wish I had more young pitchers last season so I could compare them to my senior pitchers," Robinson said. "I think it would've helped me know what I'd have to do this year.
"Last year, they knew what they had to do and there was no stopping them. This year, they don't have as much of the guts to go after the batter and it's what they have to do."
Midway through the season, Robinson started to assume the leader's role. He began taking the young pitchers aside and talking with them about their abilities. He spent afternoons working with them, learning the quirks of each's pitches. Between innings, he would talk with the starting pitcher and discuss how they would pitch to a certain batter. Soon, they began to depend on his insights and the wins started coming.
"At the beginning of the season, I wish I had been a stronger leader," Robinson said. "But hopefully, they've picked up enough to help us out until the end of our play."
About the same time he found his confidence as a leader, Robinson found his talent as a hitter. He became more assured at the plate and before long had hit his way into the leadoff spot. So far, he has lifted his batting average to .305, including a torrid pace last week when he was 9-for-16.
All the players have begun to see Robinson as a team leader, said Hernando coach Tim Sims, who also has relied on the 18-year-old for lineup help. Just last week after a three-game slide, he asked Robinson and senior pitcher Kyle Tuttle to put together a lineup for their game against Lecanto.
"Needless to say, we were in a valley," Sims said. "They were down; I was down. I just went to them and said make a starting lineup, what the heck. They, as senior leaders, know the ins and outs that as a coach sometimes you don't know."
The result was a win where nearly every player got into the game, be it as pinch runner or pinch hitter.
And, inauspiciously, Robinson had cemented himself as a leader.
And, like an experienced leader, Robinson has helped the youngsters understand what it takes to win.
"In baseball it's not who's the better team, it's who's there mentally," he said. "It's all the little things that end up mattering."