TAMPA — If granted an attentive audience, J.J. Pizzio will waste little time before launching into the case for Leto.
The Falcons’ baseball coach points to athletic facilities — including a lush green infield — that rival all but a few in the county. He runs through a list of competitive academic offerings, including the school’s highly touted culinary arts and automotive technology programs.
Pizzio tells of a student body that is diverse, with students from as many as 30 countries, and enthusiastically shares and learns from its different cultures.
He insists this isn’t meant to be a sales job.
“We’ve got too much going on here for me to chase after kids,” he said.
Pizzio pauses for a beat before adding: “But if we get the kids here that we were supposed to, this school would be unstoppable.”
So far, Pizzio has done fairly well with the players who stayed home.
The Falcons (13-10) have earned the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the District 6A-11 tournament next week, potentially setting them up for their first appearance in the state playoffs since 2001.
By no means is a region appearance guaranteed. The Falcons must win their semifinal Tuesday against the winner of Strawberry Crest-Armwood, teams they’ve won three of four closely contested regular-season games from this spring.
However, these somewhat lofty expectations are different for a program and a school where there aren’t many — if any — outside of the campus staff, students and supporters.
“It’s an amazing feeling and it’s brought out the best in us,” senior infielder Jossue Guzzman said. “Teams always think they’re going to beat us because we’re Leto. But we want to make history.”
Qualifying for the region round of the playoffs might actually count as historic at a school where few athletic teams can boast a winning tradition. Most notably, Leto is home to a football team that hasn’t won a game that wasn’t later forfeited since Nov. 6, 2009 — when this year’s senior class were freshmen.
Only five teams have advanced out of their respective district tournaments in the past decade, most coming from soccer and most recently the softball team last year.
“Teams here haven’t experienced that kind of success,” Leto athletic director Lauren Otero said of the softball team’s 2012 district championship. “That really brought a lot of spirit to the school.”
Pizzio and others are convinced the softball team’s success has carried over to the baseball team, which attends every softball game that doesn’t conflict with its own.
“I was so happy for them — and us,” Pizzio said. “I even had Pupo dressed up as the Falcon at one of their games.”
Pupo is Jose Pupo, a senior who ranks second in the county with 89 strikeouts and a 7-3 record and 1.51 ERA.
In his freshman year, the Falcons went 8-15 — a slight regression from 11-13 in 2009 and 10-13 in ’08. Since, Pupo — whom Pizzio calls “a grown man” — has been one of Leto’s top players and steadying influences.
“This is what I’ve wanted to do since my freshman year,” Pupo said of realistically contending for a district title. “When a team hears they’re playing Leto, they think we’re going to be pushovers. I wanted to change that and set a foundation for the school.”
A softly spoken hope is that a run to regionals could also help Otero, Pizzio and others convince current middle-school students and their parents that Leto is a school on the rise.
Every coach or athlete at Leto can tell a story about playing an opposing school with at least a player or two from the surrounding neighborhoods.
“My girls know where these other girls play and they’ll tell me about it,” softball coach Kelly Hacker-Carpenter said. “Unfortunately, it is what it is. We’re just trying to build our programs to where kids will see that our school can be successful.
“I’m doing what I can to make a little bit of that change.”
So is Pizzio.
In fact, it could be he made his best pitch in his own home.
Over the weekend, Pizzio said his eldest daughter — Mackenzie, an eighth-grader at Trinity School for Children — approached him and asked about what sort of courses she could take at Leto.
After years of touting the benefits of his school, his daughter has decided to join him there in the fall.
“If I couldn’t convince my own daughter to do it,” Pizzio said, “I couldn’t expect anyone else to do it.”
District tournament schedule
Schedule: Monday — No. 3 Newsome vs. No. 6 Wharton, 4; No. 4 Plant vs. No. 5 Bloomingdale, 7; Tuesday — Newsome/Wharton winner vs. No. 2 Alonso, 4; Plant/Bloomingdale winner vs. No. 1 Durant, 7; Thursday — final, 7
Schedule: Monday — No. 3 Plant City vs. No. 6 East Bay, 4; No. 4 Riverview vs. No. 5 Tampa Bay Tech, 7; Tuesday — Plant City/East Bay winner vs. No. 2 Hillsborough, 4; Riverview/TBT winner vs. No. 1 Brandon, 7; Thursday — final, 7
Schedule: Monday — No. 4 Chamberlain vs. No. 5 Freedom, 7; Tuesday — No. 2 Gaither vs. No. 3 Wiregrass Ranch, 4; Chamberlain/Freedom winner vs. No. 1 Steinbrenner, 7; Thursday — final, 7
Schedule: Monday — No. 3 Strawberry Crest vs. No. 6 Armwood, 5; No. 4 Jefferson vs. No. 5 Sickles, 7; Tuesday — Jefferson/Sickles winner vs. No. 1 King, 5; Strawberry Crest/Armwood winner vs. No. 2 Leto, 7; Thursday — final, 7
Schedule: Monday — No. 3 Blake vs. No. 6 Middleton, 4; No. 4 Lennard vs. No. 5 Spoto, 7:30; Tuesday — No. 2 Robinson vs. Blake/Middleton winner, 4; No. 1 Jesuit vs. Lennard/Spoto winner, 7:30; Thursday — final, 7
Where: Berkeley Prep
Schedule: Tuesday — No. 2 Berkeley Prep vs. No. 3 Sarasota Booker, 7; Thursday — Berkeley/Booker winner vs. No. 1 Tampa Catholic
Where: Tampa Prep
Schedule: Tuesday — No. 5 Seffner Christian vs. No. 4 Carrollwood Day, 7; Thursday — No. 3 Brooks DeBartolo vs. No. 2 Bishop McLaughlin, 4; Seffner/CDS winner vs. No. 1 Tampa Prep, 7; Friday — final, 7
Where: Interbay Little League
Schedule: Tuesday — No. 1 Cambridge vs. No. 4 Tampa Bay Christian, 4; No. 3 Bayshore Christian vs. No. 2 Academy at the Lakes, 7; Thursday — final, 7