Chris Leon emerged from the home team clubhouse Friday afternoon, examined the surroundings and took in the moment.
“We’re still practicing,” the Coral Reef baseball coach said with a smile on his face.
The Barracudas are in unmarked territory, a place they have been for most of the past month. Coral Reef has already won a district baseball title for the first time in school history and has since followed that up with Class 9A regional playoff wins over Braddock, Killian and Coral Park.
With that, Coral Reef joins McArthur (Class 8A) and Miami Springs (Class 6A) as the three area teams that will be making their first-ever appearance in the state semifinals this week at Fort Myers’ CenturyLink Sports Complex. The Barracudas (18-10) will face Orlando Timber Creek, the 2018 Class 9A state runner-up, at 1 p.m. Thursday for a spot in the championship.
A fourth area team, Sagemont in Weston, made its state debut last week but fell in the Class 3A state semis. Doral Academy (Class 7A) and Cardinal Gibbons (Class 5A) are also competing for state titles this week.
“History,” Leon told his players before a batting practice session on Friday. “We’re making history.”
It’s a testament to Leon’s ability to rally his players around his coaching philosophy in such a short amount of time.
When Leon took over as Coral Reef’s head coach before the 2017 season, he and assistant coach Eric Martinez had a three-year plan. They saw the talent they had at a preseason tryout and knew immediately that it wouldn’t take long to turn a team that has perennially been at the bottom of its district to a team that could contend with the rest of Miami-Dade County and the state.
Leon took a simplistic approach with his team. He taught them fundamentals, forcing them to master the basics. Most days, his team uses wood bats during batting practice to help them hone in on their swing. If they get solid contact with a wood bat, Leon said, using the metal bats on gameday will be that much easier. He observes most of practice perched on the bench on the left side of the dugout, close to home plate. He’s quiet, a notepad in hand, but commands respect when he speaks.
He encourages competition, with constant rotation in his starting lineup to get the best nine players on the field at any given day. Mid-game substitutions are a regular on the Coral Reef side, too, with his bench getting almost as much playing time as some of his regular starters.
Leon uses his experiences from his time as a player to help his team understand perspective. Leon won state titles as a high school catcher for Florida Christian in 2004 and 2005 and was a four-year stater at Barry University from 2008-2011, where he won two conference titles. He can still jump into a practice and demonstrate how he wants his players to execute a certain drill.
“Trust me, he’s not hesitant to show that he still has it,” senior second baseman Brent Cosculluela said.
Year 1 was an adjustment. The Barracudas went 11-12 and once again didn’t qualify for regionals out of the district tournament.
Year 2 showed improvement. Reef advanced to the district finals and had a berth in the regional tournament for the first time since 2003. The postseason was short-lived, though, with the Barracudas’ season ending with a 3-1 loss to Columbus in the regional quarterfinals.
Year 3, this year, is when everything began to pay dividends. They have a veteran roster, with 14 juniors and seniors on their 20-man roster. After an up-and-down season overall, the Barracudas beat Killian 8-7 for their first district title in school history. Next up, a 6-4 win over Braddock in the regional quarterfinals. Then a 5-2 win over Killian. And then, most recently, a 2-1 win over Coral Park.
Four wins. Each a milestone for Coral Reef.
“I’ve been here at the bottom and obviously I’m here now while we’re flying high,” Cosculluela said. “It’s just been so much more sweet for me because I’ve been part of the team that was the joke of the district. Now that we’re on top and we’re heading to state, it makes it that much better.”
They’re not done yet, though. When the Barracudas take the field on Thursday, they look to finish the journey on a high note.
“The pressure’s on everyone else,” junior Sebastian Jimenez said. “We’re not even supposed to be here, according to most people. We’re just going around with that attitude that we’re making history. Even if we lose, we still did something incredible.”
State baseball schedule
1 p.m.: Cardinal Gibbons vs. Bishop Moore, Class 5A semifinal
7 p.m.: McArthur vs. Plant City, Class 8A semifinal
1 p.m.: Coral Reef vs. Timber Creek, Class 9A semifinal
4 p.m.: Class 5A state final (if Cardinal Gibbons advances)
7:30 p.m.: Class 8A state final (if McArthur advances)
1 p.m.: Miami Springs vs. Tampa Jesuit, Class 6A semifinal
7 p.m.: Doral Academy vs. Leto, Class 7A semifinal
12:30 p.m.: Class 9A state final (if Coral Reef advances)
4 p.m.: Class 6A state final (if Miami Springs advances)
7:30 p.m.: Class 7A state final (if Doral Academy advances)