Call him the Master Chef of high school baseball coaches if you will.
Monsignor Pace head coach Tom Duffin sat proudly with five of his players at the post-game press conference on Saturday afternoon following the Spartans stirring come-from-behind 10-4 win over Jacksonville Bolles in the 5A state title game.
It marked Pace’s seventh title and the second for Duffin who took over the program 23 years ago. But it was a state title that may have felt a million miles away a few months ago.
Following the graduation of 14 seniors from last year’s team that lost a heartbreaker to Bolles in the title game two years ago and an upset loss in the regional finals last year, it was back to the drawing board for Duffin.
Even though a total of 10 talented transfers, five from state champion regular Archbishop McCarthy came in, there was very little success for Duffin and his players at the start of the season.
Amid a myriad of new faces and plenty of egos to deal with, Duffin watched his team lose six of its first 15 games which was followed by the whispers of “overrated.”
But Duffin had been down this avenue many times before as dealing with a melting pot of talented but “me-first” players was not new to him.
And it ultimately paid off as the Spartans never lost again, winning their final 15 games to finish 24-6, culminated by Saturday’s state title victory.
“Early on there was a definite feel-out process. They got to know me and I sure as heck had to get to know them,” said Duffin. “We graduated 14 seniors off last year’s team so when you have a ton of kids come from all over, not just Archbishop (McCarthy), but Coral Reef, Mater Academy, Mater Lakes, and when you have a whole combination of new ideas and thoughts of kids who are used to being coached a certain way and me being an old timer who is set in his ways, I have a formula that works but it can take time.”
Asked when things started to turn around in the right direction, Duffin didn’t hesitate.
“After we came back from the Sarasota IMG tournament, they all started to put their differences aside, really accepted their roles and started playing team baseball,” said Duffin referring to Pace’s out-of-town tournament during spring break. “At the risk of stealing a storyline from the movie Remember the Titans, it was similar. There were a lot of guys sticking with their clicks so I took all of that and busted it up when I put the rooming list together on the trip. When they came back from the trip, I heard from some of them ‘hey, I thought that guy was an idiot but turns out he’s not a bad guy.’ We were good from there.”
“It was a rough start for sure,” said senior left fielder Michael Montes who was with the program all four years. “We had a lot of new faces, a lot of ‘me’ guys who weren’t necessarily buying into the program. The IMG tournament is when it happened. Staying in the rooms, playing PlayStation all night, staying up past curfew without coach knowing (as Duffin laughs), and all of a sudden we all finally started eating together at school, going on retreats and stuff. Everyone came to understand that it was all about the name on the front of our jersey, not the name on our back and we all gelled.”
Duffin has also taken plenty of darts thrown his way over the years being accused of “recruiting” players away from other schools.
“Understand this,” said Duffin. “This program recruits itself. Kids come in here and what we do is simply try and teach them how to do things the right way. How to conduct themselves on the field and off as well.”
Duffin then sat back and wrapped his press conference up.
“I’m old school and I remind them and every player who has ever come through here that there is nobody bigger than the program,” he said. “That’s what we try and preach. Pride in the program because if you take care of the program, the program will take care of you.”