Love & understanding

Middleton gets both from coach Vernon Slater, helping explain their postseason run.

Published May 1, 2007

TAMPA - Vernon Slater's round face hides nothing.

Lips tight. Big grin. Twisted lips. Head shaking.

It can all happen during one at-bat as he coaches Middleton from the third-base box.

The grimace?

Don't worry because it won't last long.

The furrowed brow?

That's the one you'll probably see the most.

"You see, " Middleton junior third baseman DeAndre Presley said, "he cares a lot about us. That's why he is the way he is."

It has been that way since Presley was 10 and playing for North Seminole Little League where Slater coached from 2000-04. And why, of all levels, Little League?

"It was out of what was in my heart, " Slater said. "I wanted to help some kids that may not otherwise get help."

Slater, 37, said he got so much from playing the game in Little League (Belmont Heights), high school (Brandon, class of 1988), college (Polk Community College, 1989-90) and the pros (mostly an outfielder in the Kansas City organization 1991-96), that he "wanted to give something back."

He said he really didn't think too much about being a high school coach until last year when Robinson skipper and close friend Salvy Urso stepped down. At Urso's urging, Slater applied to lead the Knights, but in the final round of Robinson interviews the job at Middleton opened.

"That's when I pulled my name out of Robinson's hat, " Slater said. "Middleton was right near my work (self-owned Computer Plus Wireless), and I knew several of the players from my days coaching Little League. It was a kind of dream job. Now you could say it's a dream come true."

Sophomore second baseman Derrick Hudgins said when he heard Slater was coming to Middleton he "couldn't have been happier."

"I knew right then that the team was going to get real close and work together better than ever, " said Hudgins, who also played for Slater at North Seminole Little League. "I knew that because that's the way Coach Vernon is."

Slater said the key is caring - he funded 100 percent of an AAU team, the Tampa Reds, in 2003 - above all else.

"After that, " he said, "fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. Because this is a game where the team that makes the least mistakes is going to win. After that, make them believe in themselves by believing in them."

And this is a big reason Middleton is 20-5, the Class 5A-10 champ and hosts a region quarterfinal tonight against Tarpon Springs.

"It also helps that we have a lot of talent, " Slater said. "I truly believe that this team has enough talent to win the state title. I really believe it."

"Now, " Presley, "I think all of us believe we can do it."

Region quarterfinals

All games tonight at 7 unless noted

Class 6A - Durant (15-10) at Alonso (25-3) - Gaither (20-6) at Sarasota (24-3)

Class 5A - Jefferson (13-10) at Dunedin (23-4) - Lakewood Ranch (19-10) at Seminole (21-5) - Tarpon Springs (15-12) at Middleton (20-5) - Northeast (13-14) at Venice (21-7) - Newsome (20-8) at Land O'Lakes - Ridgewood at Bloomingdale (18-7)

Class 4A - Palmetto at Jesuit (22-5), 7:30

Class 3A - Berkeley Prep (18-8) at Sarasota Cardinal Mooney (17-10), Ed Smith Stadium

Class A - Cambridge (14-11) at Sarasota Christian (16-6) - Tampa Baptist (9-13) at Bishop McLaughlin (17-5), 4 - Seven Rivers Christian at Seffner Christian (13-8), 4