BASEBALL: Port Charlotte players push through coaching carousel; district tournament previews

By Jordan Kroeger, SunCoast Sports

PORT CHARLOTTE — There’s been a lot of turnover and turmoil for Port Charlotte’s baseball program in the past year.

The Pirates have gone through four coaches since last April, almost unheard of on any level in sports.

It hit the program hard, with some players even transferring to another school to escape the madness.

“I think everybody had gotten to the point where we just wanted it to be done,” Port Charlotte pitcher Matt LePoint said. “I think a lot of kids weren’t even sure if they wanted to play baseball at that point.”

But for the players who stayed in the Pirates dugout, their patience has been rewarded this season under a new coach who has his team riding high heading into this week’s District 6A-11 Tournament.

Rodney Taylor was hired as the team’s baseball coach on Dec. 15, replacing Johnnie Kirkland after he stepped down just six months into the job. Kirkland was the third coach to leave in a six-month span after he replaced interim coach Zach Floyd, who took over for Bryan Beisner near the end of the 2016 season when Beisner resigned due to personal reasons.

But after all those changes, the Pirates finally feel they have the right man leading them on the baseball field. That’s been evident by their play this season as they earned the No. 2 seed in the district and will entertain North Fort Myers in the district quarterfinals at 7 p.m. today.

“(Taylor) came out and he really put a plug in it, if you know what I mean,” said LePoint, a senior pitcher/shortstop. “I’d rather it not have happened at all, but I think Coach Taylor is a good match for us.

He keeps everyone together, keeps everybody kind of levelheaded, so I think it was a good stop here. Not that I don’t think that the other coaches couldn’t have done well, but he’s just a great match for us right now.”

There was definitely a learning curve for both the players and Taylor at first, with the Pirates getting off to an average 6-5 start to the season. The players were familiar with Taylor when he took over the coaching duties, considering he’s also the boys golf coach, and Taylor was familiar with the players from being around the school for years.

But they’ll both admit there’s a difference between familiarity and building a relationship, something that took some time to develop.

“We came out here two weeks before the season started and we didn’t know what to expect,” Taylor said. “We came in open-minded — a new book with nothing written in it yet and all three of us (assistant coaches Mike Fullington and Brett Water) worked together and we just said let’s go in open-minded and start a new story with them, see what happens and see if we can get them to respond. In their own way they’ve responded.”

You couldn’t blame the players if they didn’t believe his message at first. When Taylor first introduced himself to his team, the Pirates’ expectations weren’t exactly high, considering they finished fifth in the district a year ago and featured a team of 12 seniors that had to adjust again to a new regimen.

“He told us he believed we were a very good team, and if we mold as a family and we don’t do what happened with the previous coaches, then we’d be very good and we’d win a district championship,” LePoint said. “There was a lot of ‘whatever’ because everybody was tired of the coaches and everything that had happened, but now that we’ve seen his vision well, it’s really helping us.”

LePoint isn’t kidding.

Since the 6-5 start, the Pirates have won nine of their last 12 and seven of their last nine. Two of those wins came against top-seeded Ida Baker, wins that called for late-inning rallies.

Those wins helped Port Charlotte leapfrog Cape Coral from third place to second in the district standings. They’ve become the red-hot Pirates, or you could say, the cardiac Pirates.

As for how far this team can go, nobody is certain. Taylor says he can’t even put his finger on what exactly has this team playing so well in the second half of the season, only that it now stays on an even keel, win or lose.

But he is certain of one thing — he now has a family away from home.

“We’ve built a rapport over these last two, three months that we’ve been together. I feel like I’ve been out here with them for four years,” Taylor said.

His players couldn’t agree more.

DISTRICT TOURNAMENTS
(all games at 7 p.m.)

7A-11
Participating teams: Venice, Charlotte, Fort Myers, North Port
Schedule: Tuesday-Game 1: 3. Fort Myers at 2. Charlotte; Game 2: 4. North Port at 1. Venice; Thursday-Game 3: Championship, Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner.

6A-11
Participating teams: Ida Baker, Port Charlotte, Cape Coral, Cypress Lake, Mariner, Island Coast, North Fort Myers
Schedule: Today-Game 1: 7. North Fort Myers at 2. Port Charlotte; Game 2: 6. Island Coast at 3. Cape Coral; Game 3: 5. Mariner at 4. Cypress Lake; Wednesday-Game 4: winner of Game 1 vs. winner of Game 2; Game 5: Game 3 winner at 1. Ida Baker; Thursday-Game 6: Championship, Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner.

5A-12
Participating teams: Lemon Bay, DeSoto County, Lake Placid, Dunbar
Schedule: Tuesday-Game 1: 4. Dunbar at Lemon Bay; Game 2: Lake Placid at DeSoto County; Thursday-Game 3: Championship, Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner.

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