TAMPA ― He fidgeted with every fastball, died a little inside with every curve that hung a bit too much.
Steinbrenner baseball coach John Crumbley had watched his old Warriors ace, CJ Van Eyk, throw dozens ― maybe hundreds ― of innings, but this was different. On this tense Sunday night, Crumbley could neither counsel nor comfort Van Eyk. He couldn’t even call a pitch.
Like the rest of the ESPN2 audience affixed to this FSU-LSU super regional showdown, all Crumbley could do was observe ― and agonize ― as Van Eyk worked into the eighth inning.
“I would say that as I texted his father, I was more nervous sitting in my La-Z-Boy than I was watching him throw in the state tournament from the dugout in the (2016) semifinal game,” Crumbley said, referring to Steinbrenner’s 2-0 win against Westland Hialeah in the Class 8A semis.
“But as I told his dad, it was definitely a proud moment for Hillsborough County, for Steinbrenner and for CJ.”
That pride oozed from nearly every nook of the bay area. FSU’s roster features 12 players who starred for a local high school.
A handful of them ― including Van Eyk ― played critical roles in Sunday’s 12-inning, 5-4 victory that clinched a College World Series berth.
“Snapchat was blowing up, and everybody was texting, ‘Are you watching? Are you talking?’” former Brandon High coach Matt Stallbaumer said.
As Crumbley squirmed in Lutz, Stallbaumer and his old pitching coach, Ernie Johns, expended enough nervous energy to light up a suburban Bloomingdale block as Eagles alumnus Antonio Velez worked 4.2 scoreless innings to earn the win in relief.
“It was exciting, it was fun to watch,” Stallbaumer said. “We kept looking at each other saying, ‘We don’t see anybody else warming up in the bullpen, this might be Velez’s game to win or lose.’ It was pretty cool.”
While FSU’s surreal quest to give retiring coach Mike Martin his first national title ― in his 17th CWS appearance ― remains the prevailing story line of this postseason, subplots abound for bay area viewers.
FSU’s roster features as many players who attended high school in Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco or Pinellas counties as those of USF, Florida and Miami combined.
“I’m not gonna sugarcoat this at all: Tampa is very dear to me,” Martin said Wednesday.
“And it goes all the way back to when I first started coaching when we had guys like (Plant alumni) Danny Dowell and Rick Figueredo. We didn’t get some of the young men we went after in the mid-80s, and then we started really bearing down on the Tampa area in the last 10 years.”
Van Eyk leads the pitching staff in wins (10-3, 3.80 ERA). Velez (47 strikeouts, 44.1 innings), who earned the win in both super regional games, is enjoying a late-season resurgence.
Freshman catcher Mat Nelson, a Calvary Christian alumnus, began heating up offensively in early April and is hitting .277. Freshman cleanup hitter Robby Martin (Jefferson) has the club’s second-best average (.332).
The guy who helped Martin recruit most of them echoes his old boss when he says the assemblage of local talent is no geographic fluke.
“We understand the strength of Tampa, St. Pete, the 813,” said former FSU assistant Mike Bell, who just wrapped up his first season as coach at Pitt.
“Whether it’s the Saladino Tournament or Legion ball ... I think competition brings out the best in individuals. There’s great competition and great knowledge when you talk about some of the coaches down there.”
Martin concurred. “I can’t say enough (about) those (bay area) high school coaches,” he said.
“They really know the game. They teach the fundamentals, the competition is outstanding, and we’ve got (bay area) guys that are making major contributions to our program this year as freshmen.”
Bell, who preceded Stallbaumer as Brandon coach and spent two seasons (2001-02) with the Eagles, said FSU’s coaches weren’t necessarily assigned specific recruiting areas. Instead, they would home in on the areas where they had cultivated solid relationships.
Which caused him to naturally gravitate toward west central Florida. A Sarasota Riverview alumnus, Bell was the first signee in the history of Pasco-Hernando State College (then Pasco-Hernando Community College), and hit the program’s first home run.
His coaching career has taken him to Brandon and Lakeland’s Florida Southern College, in addition to FSU (where he played his final two college seasons).
“He’s always kind of been tied down here in this area for sure, and I think he just built some relationships with the local high school coaches,” Stallbaumer said.
“And he was always at the events, from the Saladino (Tournament) to the big travel-ball tournaments and stuff that are being held seasonally. I think he groomed a lot of these kids from the beginning.”
He’ll be watching them again this weekend, when his old coach ― and those kids he helped nurture ― commence CWS play in Omaha.
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
FSU’s 2019 roster features more players who graduated from a bay area high school than any other Division I-A program in the state.
Florida State: 12
Florida A&M: 6
North Florida: 5
Florida Atlantic: 4
Florida Gulf Coast: 2