Panthers: It's a whole new game
By KRISTEN LEIGH PORTER
LECANTO -- When second-year coach Brian Donovan looks at his Lecanto baseball team, he sees a winner, though not everyone does.
The Panthers (1-2) have won no more than seven games each of the past five seasons.
"As far as respect goes, if we start winning and we start beating teams, we can't help but get the respect we deserve," Donovan said. "I think the big thing here is the kids need to start believing in themselves that they can do it. Winning is contagious and enthusiasm is as well."
A new clubhouse will help. The players now have their names above cubicles for storing their equipment and uniforms.
Senior catcher Mike Bargiel, a returning Times Citrus/Hernando first-team selection, said there has been many changes since Donovan became coach.
"We've been waiting for that clubhouse for two years, and that's all we've been talking about," Bargiel said. "He gets us new jerseys, hats, helmets and bats. He has all the connections and hooks us up.
"Before he got here, the field was like a goat pasture. It was hardly playable, and after rain we would have puddles in the entire infield. After working on the infield, we eliminated most of those.
"We have a new warning track, a screen fence, new foul poles, new backstop track -- it's just amazing what he has done," Bargiel said. "It gives us lots to take pride in."
Donovan has had help from parents, players and coaches who volunteered their time.
Despite the new look and attitude, the Panthers have to battle past perceptions.
Lecanto's last winning record was in 1987, when it went 11-9 and reached a district semifinal.
"Honestly, I think from the obvious aesthetics of the facility and the attitude, I think the kids were hungry for commitment from their coach, commitment to improving the facility and improving the program," Donovan said.
A better off-season commitment should help, too.
Lecanto had summer Dixie League teams, and some players competed on AAU squads or in an adult league. Donovan said there are 6-7 athletes not in the Panthers program because the conditioning "scared them off."
Senior pitcher/outfielder Jacob McClelland, who threw six shutout innings Thursday in Lecanto's first victory, said the extra work is paying off.
"We've got to keep pushing hard and cut down on errors, keep swinging the bat," McClelland said. "We've got a better facility this year and better players. Coach Donovan is pushing us, and hopefully we'll win."
Lecanto, hurt in the past by members who transferred, gained one for its own. Senior outfielder Chadd Martin, who left powerhouse Seminole, hopes to give the Panthers a boost.
"As long as we all play as a team and consolidate on our errors, we can do anything any other team can do," Martin said.
Donovan says Lecanto has about 3-4 players who can compete in college, including Martin. A Devil Rays scout attended Monday's game in the Tom Varn Invitational.
Though it is early in the season, Donovan said the Panthers are to be reckoned with.
"No one thinks we're going to be ultra-competitive, but you have the Bargiels and the Martins and some of these other guys like Landon Baize, and we could be," the coach said.
Lecanto, which won the Times All-Sports Award for the 1995-96 school year, never has been competitive on a state level in baseball or football.
With the success of other county teams, most recently Crystal River, Panthers baseball has not been big news. Freshman pitcher Denver Keene said it is good for the program to see others receive more attention.
"It just builds up our self-esteem and makes us work harder," Keene said.
The Panthers have to look far back in their past for success.
In the spring of 1989, Lecanto made it to the final eight despite finishing with a 10-16 mark. The Panthers entered district play with just seven wins, but captured the Class 2A-9 title. Then they upset Tavares to claim the school's first region championship.
Bargiel predicts that this year's squad will be competitive in the postseason. Lecanto is in Class 4A, District 7 with Central, Clermont East Ridge, Leesburg and Springstead.
"I can see winning districts and going to regionals with this team," Bargiel said. "We have the ability. We have a strong infield, outfield and pitching staff. And if we start swinging the bat, we'll do a lot better hitting. The talent is there."
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