Since Bishop Verot High School baseball coach David Nelson announced early last month he was resigning his post at the end of this season he’s been constantly reminded why he’s making the right decision.
It seems for every appearance in the state Final Four – Verot has been to the state semifinals six straight years, the longest streak by any Lee County team in any sport – there is a missed coach’s pitch game played by his 6-year-old son Brayden. Nelson made just five of 17 games this spring.
After the Vikings upset Sarasota Cardinal Mooney in the District 4A-5 title game last month, Nelson’s didn’t have much time to celebrate. He had a class presentation the next day as he pursues a Master’s degree in educational leadership online through St. Leo’s University. He’s on track to graduate in July 2017.
It doesn’t matter that he’s just 35 years old or that he is walking away from a perennial state title contender. He knows devoting himself to his family and his studies is the right move and his players, who were shocked at first by the announcement, are behind him.
The Vikings want to make sure when Nelson takes his final bow at JetBlue Park during the Florida High School Athletic Association Baseball State Championships this weekend it’s with a championship medal hanging from his neck.
“Right now, where I’m at and where my family is at, this is the right decision,” said Nelson, whose club will face Jacksonville Providence in a Class 4A semifinal at 10 a.m. Friday. “I can’t rule out coaching another varsity sport. I’m just a pawn in this life. I know God has a plan for me. For now, though, I’m just enjoying this run.”
Coaching has been all he’s known for the last 10 years. It’s been all his family has known. Brayden was a year old when Verot won the 2011 state title in Port St. Lucie under outgoing coach Tom LoSauro, who Nelson took over for in 2012 after five years as an assistant. Nelson has compiled a 116-37 record with five district and regional championships and two state runner-up finishes since.
Nelson was fine with coaching being a way of life, but he didn’t want it to become his entire life.
From tryouts in the beginning of January until a trip to the state tournament, there aren’t enough hours in the day. The Verot dean of students aspires to be the best administrator he can be by continuing his education and there are moments in Brayden’s and his 1-year-old daughter Grayce’s life he just can’t miss.
Getting through each day on four hours of sleep is no way to live, though. More times than not, he finds himself dozing off while rocking Grayce to sleep or reading to Brayden.
“My wife is a full-time teacher and when she gets home she’s a full-time mom,” Nelson said. “That’s tough. I want to be there for her.”
Monica Nelson, a 2016 Golden Apple-winning teacher at Heights Elementary School, has been with David for 10 years and has never known him as anything but a coach. The sacrifices she’s made as the primary care giver to their children have been great.
She spends a few days a week in the car with Grayce and Brayden transporting Brayden to his games and finding a few precious moments to feed them. David is rarely home for dinner during baseball season.
The time David spends away from his kids, Monica said, can be heartbreaking at times. Grayce is at the age where she latches onto her mother, who she sees all the time, and prefers to be around Monica even when David is around.
There were a few times in February when Brayden preferred to ride the bench and sometimes forgo at-bats until his father showed up.
“There comes a time when you need to prioritize the things in your life,” Monica said. “I told him that I’d never be that wife who makes him quit something he loves. He decided his family was more important.
“David is a very spiritual person. He’s very close to God. He realized you don’t know how much time you have left in life. And there are moments in your children’s lives you’re not going to get back.”
Nelson announced his decision to his players on April 4, but it was met with some healthy skepticism. His reputation for playing April Fool’s Day jokes on them is the stuff of legends.
The 2013 prank, which then-principal John Cavell was in on, where he convinced his players that Fort Myers High transfer Ismael Brito was ruled ineligible due to a paperwork issue and Verot would have to forfeit its 12 wins and be the No. 4 seed in the district tournament hasn’t been forgotten.
Nelson opted not to play a prank three days prior to the announcement as the team wasn’t in a joking mood, having lost all four games at the Catholic Schools Challenge in Orlando, part of a stretch where it lost nine of 11 games.
However, the meeting held during practice was no joke.
“We didn’t expect it,” senior center fielder Trevor Cramer said. “Usually that is something you announce at the end of the season, not in the middle of the season.”
The news took a few days to sink in. In the midst of the hangover, Verot was routed by Naples High by 10 runs, dropping the Vikings to 7-14 on the season.
It was uncharted territory for a program that averaged 25 wins the previous six years.
Something had to change.
“We’d been doing things the same way for years,” Nelson said. “It wasn’t working with these guys.”
Nelson met with his assistants and constructed a new way to practice. Instead of batting practice and taking groundballs, Verot moved to live scrimmages.
Pitching was the club’s Achilles’ heel due to a high number of walks. An emphasis was put on throwing strikes and pitchers put that to use in the scrimmages against live batters.
“We learned a lot about who we were,” senior catcher Michael Richey said. “The pitchers learned to trust the defense and know we have their backs.”
The result was a seven-game win streak, which included wins over Bradenton IMG Academy and North Port, culminating with an upset of Mooney in the district final and another win over Mooney in the Region 4A-3 final to keep the streak of Final Four appearances alive.
Nelson saved his best coaching job for last.
“He’s not only a coach to me,” Richey said. “I’ve spent more time with him at times than I’ve spent with my parents. He and the rest of the coaches taught us life lessons and taught us how to be men. We want to send him off on a high note.”
“We want to give him a championship,” Cramer said.
Heading into Friday, Verot (14-14) will be the .500-team with the rowdy fan base few expect much from. Having played a schedule that featured four teams that will play in the Final Four over the next week – Barron Collier, Venice, Fort Lauderdale Archbishop McCarthy and Miami Belen Jesuit – Nelson said the team is battle tested and gritty enough to prove some people wrong.
Those traits are what he’ll cherish most about the program and its players.
“This program and these guys will always have a special place in my heart,” Nelson said. “I’m going to miss them. When I come to watch them play (as a spectator) I don’t know how I’m going to react or respond. Change is always hard.”
Florida High School Baseball State Championships
When: Wednesday, May 11 – Saturday, May 14 & Wednesday, May 18 – Saturday, May 21, 2016
Where: JetBlue Park
11500 Fenway South Dr.
Fort Myers, FL 33913
Host: School District of Lee County, Lee County Sports Development and Lee County Parks and Recreation
Admission: $9.00 per day (stadium has no re-entry policy)
Parking: $10.00 for cars/$50.00 for fan buses
Lee County presence: Canterbury plays Tallahassee Maclay at 4 p.m. Friday in the Class 3A state semifinals. If the Cougars win, they play again at 7:35 p.m. Saturday for the Class 3A state championship.
Bishop Verot plays Jacksonville Providence at 10 a.m. Friday in the Class 4A semifinals. If the Vikings win, they play again at 4:05 p.m. Saturday for the Class 4A state championship.
David Nelson’s Bishop Verot coaching record
2016 14-14 District Champion, Regional Champion
2015 24-7 District Champion; Regional Champion; State Runner-Up
2014 25-6 District Champion; Regional Champion
2013 24-7 District Champion; Regional Champion
2012 29-3 District Champion; Regional Champion; State Runner-Up