Led by young nuclues, the Tornadoes are ready to make noise — again.
Last season, the Booker High baseball team won the Class 5A District 11 title, its first since 2004. It did so with just 11 players on the roster for much of the season. Coach Jeremy Schmidt had found that quality can sometimes trump quantity, and it was working. Even with seniors Hunter Johnson, Jake Underhill and Micah Davis graduating, Booker’s baseball future seemed assuredly bright.
Then, Schmidt resigned. He had held the job for four years.
With uncertainty surrounding the coaching position, a rash of transfers followed. The program that had come so far and beaten the odds was at risk of falling apart completely.
In stepped Anthony Crawford.
The Booker alumnus was hired as coach on Nov. 10, just over eight years after he had graduated from high school. Since graduating, Crawford attended Hillsborough Community College and started his own training school, X-Factor Elite Academy.
“I was not prepared for the phone call,” Crawford said. “But I feel ready for the job. What better place to coach than this?”
Crawford said that coming back and living within the surrounding community has helped establish relationships with the local youth coaches and kids. That’s good, because the squad he is inheriting is especially young. It includes freshman twin brothers Lonnie and Zach Ellis, a utility player and catcher, respectively, and freshman Uriel Hernandez, who will open the season as the team’s No. 2 pitcher and also play some shortstop.
Crawford said all three players would still be penciled in as starters even on a more experienced squad. That trio played together and against each other in the Sarasota Cal Ripken League.
“I think we bring a new ‘franchise’ to this high school,” Hernandez said. “If we work hard and stay focused, we can do great.”
Crawford said the program will be run through those three players, plus returning senior shortstop and No. 1 pitcher Alex Amero, who has signed to play for Lakeland University in Wisconsin next year.
Amero was shocked by Schmidt’s resignation.
“He built this whole program up,” Amero said. “But now I’m OK with it. I like Coach Crawford. He treats us like family.”
Amero has less kind words for the players who failed to stick around.
“I don’t really talk to any of those guys anymore,” Amero said. “I stayed because I love this school. If they had stayed, we could have done something really great. But I wish them the best of luck.”
Crawford said instilling a family atmosphere is vital to his coaching vision, a challenge when so many players are new and do not know each other. He wants players to have each other’s backs 100 percent of the time, so that there is no doubt whether an outfielder will dive for a dying fly ball, or a first baseman will stretch as far as humanly possible for a throw to gain an extra centimeter on a runner. He also said that the team is focusing on ‘small ball,’ so look for lots of bunts and steals out of this scrappy bunch this season.
To get that trust instilled, Crawford is planning plenty of team-bonding events, like car washes and bowling nights. Junior Dean Price said that Crawford also made the team go to football games together, which is a sign of how quickly Crawford put his plans in order, considering when he was hired.
Booker now has 16 players on its varsity roster, an improvement from last year, but still did not see enough turnout at tryouts to field a JV squad. Development of depth may be an issue going forward.
Then again, last year’s Tornadoes did more with less. If the highly touted freshman live up to the hype, and Crawford is confident they will, there’s no reason why they cannot see similar success in 2017.
“No one knows what we have,” Crawford said, referencing other schools. “All they know is ‘Oh, transfers.’ We have such a talented young nucleus.”
Perhaps Amero asked the best question of all.
“We just have to have the right mindset” he said. “Kinda go step by step. Once we pick it up and get after it, why not us?”
Why not, indeed.