The LaBelle baseball team is not going to overpower its opponents.
The Cowboys have hit just one home run in 18 games. Extra base hits have accounted for just 18 percent of the team’s on-base opportunities this season.
But for Jeff Burton, the team’s head coach who was born and raised in LaBelle and graduated from the high school nearly four decades ago, that’s just fine with him.
It looks just like the program he played for, and the players of today reflect the type of gritty, hard-nosed athlete he was all those years ago.
“When you look at us, it’s ‘How are we going to do this’?” said Burton, in his second year leading the Cowboys after taking over for Ron Dunbar in 2015. “Then all of a sudden, they have that it. We need a base runner. Well, we’ve got kids that will take it in the…we’ve been hit a bunch of times. They find a way to get on.”
This season, the Cowboys, which have just 25 players across both the JV and varsity teams, are working small ball down to a science. They play the numbers better than anyone in their district.
They value on-base percentage (.402), swipe bases in almost any situation (2.8 per game), and even find the base at least once per game by being hit by pitch (15).
Heading into a challenging non-conference date with Ida Baker on Tuesday, LaBelle is 13-5 and has a chance to score its first district championship since 1998. It would be just the second title in school history.
“Our motto is, ‘It’s not who we play, it’s how we play,’” junior Matthew Price said. “So we do the little things. Do your job and get the next guy over so he can score.”
Nothing is ever guaranteed, of course.
Yet, if ever there was a year to win a District 5A-13 championship, this would be it. The Cowboys haven’t lost to any team in their four-team district, and they look as confident as any team the program has put on the field since 2009.
Much of that is due to the team’s mentality, a “we” over “me” feeling that was born out of Burton’s years playing high school baseball for the Cowboys in the late ’70s.
“It’s not about you,” sophomore first basemen Jaxon Purvis said. “It’s about the guy standing next to you, playing for him.”
Burton and assistant coach Zack Ward, a 2006 Bishop Verot graduate who played college baseball at Averett University, often don’t need a signal for a player on the bag. If it’s the right situation, they say, the base runner may already know what to do.
“We’re small and fast, so when I’m over at first, once we get a guy on, there are very few guys who have the red light as far as taking a base,” Ward said.
Once the runs start adding up, the pitching usually takes over.
But not in the way dominant pitching usually does.
The Cowboys have two pitchers, freshman Tyler Nesbitt and sophomore Tyler Burton, who have ERAs under 1.11 and have combined to throw 70 innings.
Neither blow past hitters.
Nesbitt, who sports a 6-2 record, has a fastball in the low 80s and offers about three pitches, Ward said. Burton, who has a 2-1 record, throws in the mid 80s and offers four pitches.
They both find ways to win, mostly by throwing strikes and letting their teammates do the rest of the work.
“That’s where it starts,” Burton said. “And both of them are very competitive. Once again, when they’re on the mound, they’re thinking ‘It’s a battle and I’m going to win it.’ They both understand they’re not Randy Johnson, so they have to start ahead and throw strikes and let the guys behind them work. “
Coaching, however, makes a difference, too. Burton, who was formerly an assistant for nine years under Dunbar, kept similar tactics, reinforcing the idea that the Cowboys built up over the years.
Don’t try to play big. Play our way.
Dunbar had good teams throughout the years, going 109-87 over the last nine seasons. One of his best teams in 2009 went 17-6.
This year, Burton got a special crop who played together on a youth team called the Caloosa Cats.
“A lot of the guys we have now, we’ve been playing for a while,” Burton said. “It’s just clicking.”
Burton also took on Ward the first year he arrived at the school. Ward, who’s also the school’s basketball coach, added a touch of passion to the dugout to go along with his experience as a former player.
“We have different coaching styles and philosophies,” Ward said. “I’m fiery and passionate. He’s laid back and doesn’t raise his voice much. So I can kind of take that fire and ice sort of deal, where I can be the hammer and he can be the one that comes back with something positive to say.”
By his second year, Burton began to see success turn over faster than even he may have anticipated. And he went with it.
Sometimes he can’t explain it. Then again, he doesn’t really have to, either.
“We’re just gritty,” Burton said. “We don’t hit (home runs). We don’t play the long ball. We don’t. We just seem to find a way to win.”