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Championship contender is in good hands with Runnels

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003

CRYSTAL RIVER -- Looking out at Mike Hampton Field, Pirates senior Jonathan Runnels paused to inspect the lush green outfield and meticulously-kept diamond.

"We've done a lot of work on that," Runnels said. "It's our park, and we have to take care of it. It's going to be as nice as we want it to be. It's nice playing on a nice field."

After not being able to play high school ball his freshman year, Runnels knew he had to get back on a field. As a student at Seven Rivers Christian, which did not have a team at the time, he couldn't stay away.

So after playing summer ball, Runnels transferred to Crystal River for his sophomore year, also when new coach Brent Hall was taking over the program. In Runnels' first high school game, he was playing shortstop for the Pirates. "He's a remarkable player and one of the best I've ever had," Hall said. "He's got a love for the game and great leadership ability."

That season, Runnels batted .490 with 49 hits and 35 RBIs, reserving a spot on the Times All-Citrus/Hernando first team.

Hitting leadoff last year, Runnels was an all-area pick and scored 49 runs while helping Crystal River to the Class 3A final four. He thinks the Pirates can be just as good this season.

Runnels said Crystal River players work as hard as any other team in the state in terms of conditioning, and they used the summer to tune up skills. Like his senior counterparts, Runnels said it will not be a satisfying season if the Pirates don't get back to the finals.

"I think making it this last year kind of spoiled us," he said. "I was fortunate enough to experience that, and there's nothing like it."

Runnels will play a big part if Crystal River is to make a return trip.

He is listed at 5-foot-10, 183 pounds but said it's more like 5-9, 170. Although not intimidating in size, Runnels is confident in his ability.

"I've got to stay within myself," Runnels said. "A lot of times I see people like (Pirates teammate) Ryan Pearson, who is twice the size I am, and he's hitting balls out in the trees. That automatically says that's what I want to do, but I can't because that's not how I am and that's not how my swing is. "My swing is line drives in the gaps and stuff like that," Runnels said. "That's what I've done for three years. That's something I have to accept. If I had a team, I'd much rather take somebody who can consistently hit it around the ballpark than somebody who every once in a while hits it out."

Runnels has been working to improve his defense. "I've taken more ground balls than I did last year, and I've worked a lot harder as far as reading the ball off the bat," he said. "Let's face it, this is my last year and I'm not just going to get good at it. I have to work."

The pitching staff is confident with Runnels in the field, says senior right-hander Zac Cole.

"I feel like our shortstop, Jonathan "Cadillac" Runnels, is a strong player, and we're going to rely on him this year," Cole said. "Where he goes, we go."

Runnels is not sure where he will end up next season, but baseball is in his future. He will be visiting the University of North Florida on March 1, and said Central Florida Community College has offered him the same package as ex-Pirates standout Clayton Trenary. Runnels, Cole and teammate E.J. Gerrits have checked out Florida Southern.

"I'm hoping my senior year goes well," Runnels said. "There's some people who are going to come watch me play. "I want to go somewhere where I'll be happy." As long as there's a field, he will be.

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