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Eager senior hunting for his old swing

(ran PC edition)

Wesley Chapel's Gabe Quinones provides experience and leadership, but his coach wants him to provide more hits.

Sorry coach, but Gabe Quinones cannot take it easy. Even if you said so.

The Wesley Chapel leadoff hitter doesn't need to jump on every pitch that crosses the plate. He doesn't need to take a whack at every ball just because it's in flight. Just because the senior centerfielder is a team leader, he doesn't need to put so much pressure on himself.

Quinones hears all this _ again and again. Coach Steve Mumaw constantly bends his ear about it. Mumaw wants him to ease off the gas a little, let the game come to him, hoping the .333 hitter will start swinging like the .368 batter he was last season.

But Quinones can't. His synapses fire and he thinks about what the coach has said, but he can't quite grasp the concept.

Slow down? When it's his senior season? When the Wildcats are 0-10? When his team came so close to upsetting Hernando in last year's district tourney? When there are 16 games left in his career? When any hope of playing collegiate baseball may rest on every at-bat?

No wonder he's in such a hurry.

"It's my senior year, and I want to do good," he said. "I want to make a good impression."

In the short, brief history of Wildcats' baseball, Quinones already has done that. He has given a very raw Wesley Chapel squad the benefit of his experience and his considerable speed in the outfield and on the base paths.

Mumaw wants players who lead by example, and Quinones has provided that.

"Gabe is a player who has good speed," Mumaw said, "and he's a heady player, he's been around. He's played a lot of baseball in his life, so he brings a wealth of experience to us.

"I think he brings a little bit of leadership to this team as well, as a senior."

Mumaw said the Wildcats "are a different team" when their leadoff hitter reaches base. He leads the squad with six steals, five in the first week and a half of the season. When he's on base, runs come much easier.

Getting on base has been the problem. Quinones is not the hitter he was his junior season. He knows it. His coach knows it.

"Last year he was our best player," Mumaw said. "This year he's not doing as well as he did last year. I think he's still hitting for a good average, but he's not hitting with the good authority he did last year. He's gotten a couple (of hits) because of his speed; he hits the ball and he beats them out.

"But we're still looking for Gabe to become the player he was last year."

Part of the problem may be the opposition also knows just what kind of player he was. And being the leadoff man with no protection in a young lineup hasn't helped a player who suddenly seems a marked man from the mound, even for a 5-foot-8 hitter with an advantageous strike zone.

"They're pitching me differently," Quinones said. "Last season teams took it easy on us, they left a couple of fat pitches off the plate. This season they're aware we can win some games, so they're pitching us harder, throwing their No. 3 guys at us, they're going for the win."

Mumaw said Quinones' angst is obvious.

"I see him press, I see him very frustrated after games," Mumaw said. "Even though we went through this same losing streak last year, I think it's more frustrating for him this year.

"I don't know if he's putting pressure on himself. I don't know if he's thinking he needs to find some place (to play) next year, or he has to lead this team. We've tried not to put pressure on him."

Quinones said college does weigh on his mind. He would love to play at Saint Leo, though he knows the path to the next level is difficult.

Until then Quinones will give his best to Wesley Chapel and wait for that perfect line drive that will signal the return of his swing.

"It'll be a line drive over to shortstop, then comes a hit to the outfield, and then before you know it, here comes a big hit for the wall," he said. "That's when you know it's back."