DOVER — Eric Beattie was 24 years old and still figuring out life after professional baseball when he drove down Interstate 4 and noticed a school being built, just a few miles from his home.
The Valrico native had been working at the Tommy Bahama store at International Plaza, but Beattie knew that he wanted to pursue a career in baseball — the sport that earned him a scholarship to the University of Tampa and a three-year professional career with the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox.
A new high school, Beattie thought, meant they'd probably be in the market for a baseball coach. So he contacted a friend who knew incoming athletic director Melvin Williams and got the ball rolling on fulfilling his dream.
Beattie was young and inexperienced. He had never coached, outside of private instruction, and he didn't know the first thing about being a teacher. Williams knew that. But he also saw in Beattie an energy that he was sure would create a lasting impact on a program trying to get off the ground.
"I just had a great feeling about him," said Williams, now the athletic director at nearby Armwood High. "One thing we had at that school was youth, inexperience. I knew at some point, though, that it would be a massive success."
Nearly 10 years later, the Chargers are on the brink of just that. Friday, Strawberry Crest (19-8) will travel to Fort Myers to take on Sarasota in the Class 8A state semifinals, its first appearance in the state final four. Before this season, the Chargers had never won a district championship — Strawberry Crest beat Wharton 7-3 for the 8A-4 title earlier this month — and they had never made it past the region quarterfinals.
The Chargers' success stems from their fight, starting pitcher Damien Torres said; this season, they haven't given up on a single ball, a single game. But when you have a coach like Beattie in the dugout, he added, all of that comes naturally.
"When you agree with Coach on what he does, what he preaches, it just makes playing for him a whole lot easier," said Torres, who owns a 7-1 record and 1.22 ERA. "It's very helpful that he knows what it takes, so he can pass that on to me or anyone else who hopes of getting drafted on this team."
And Beattie, who was a second-round draft pick in 2004, knows a thing or two about growth. He attended Bloomingdale High School as a freshman but didn't make the varsity baseball team, so he transferred to nearby Riverview. At the conclusion of his senior year, Beattie was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays, but elected to take a scholarship at UT instead.
He may have been young when he started coaching at Strawberry Crest, but for former player Ben Welch, that was an asset to the Chargers, not a detriment.
"We loved it, from a playing perspective. He understood what we were going through," said Welch, who is finishing his first season as an assistant coach under Beattie. "When I was here, he was still in his 20s, he had just gotten out, just finished pro ball. He was always really approachable, easy to talk to. If you had an issue with school or baseball, you could go to him."
Beattie might make it look easy, but his experience as the school's only baseball coach hasn't always been.
In its first two seasons, Strawberry Crest had the kind of growing pains one might expect from a brand new program. It only won eight games during its first season in 2010 and only nine the next year. Beattie admits he struggled making the transition from baseball player to baseball coach.
"From those early years, what I remember was trying to keep my head above water," he said. "I would say it took me a year to realize how far I needed to come to be the coach I wanted to be. And I'm still learning."
While he continues to grow, so, too, does the program he's spent his entire career nurturing. Strawberry Crest is just two wins from making school history once again, and regardless of Friday's outcome, the Chargers will close the door on their seventh consecutive winning season in Fort Myers.
There's a lot at stake for the Chargers this week. But win or lose, Beattie promises he will be just fine.
"There's so many different successes you experience outside of winning. A ton of my alumni are in the military now, they're finishing college," said Beattie, choking back tears. "If you focus on the successes and positives, there's far more reason to celebrate than there is reason to be frustrated."
State baseball semifinals
At Hammond Stadium, Fort Myers
Class 6A: Jefferson vs. Green Cove Springs Clay, 10 a.m. Wednesday
Class 7A: Leto vs. Pace, 4 p.m. Wednesday
Class 5A: Jacksonville Bolles vs. Nature Coast, 10 a.m. Thursday
Class 8A: Sarasota vs. Strawberry Crest, 10 a.m. Friday