Coach not above using scare tactics to motivate

If idea of benching Dragon seniors for freshmen stops a slump, all the better.

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times correspondent
Published May 4, 2007

TAMPA - With his team off to an uninspiring 1-5 start, longtime Jefferson coach Pop Cuesta searched high and low for answers until one day he had a thought.

It was time to give the Dragons a history lesson.

"I kept telling them, 'Remember when you guys came into the program as freshmen and the seniors struggled? What did we do? We took them out and put you guys in, ' " Cuesta said.

The message was clear: Start playing better or risk the same fate.

"I had been one of those guys (three years ago), so I believed him, " senior third baseman Peter Millan said. "I think everyone listened."

Apparently so.

Six weeks after that wakeup call, the Dragons enter tonight's Class 5A region semifinal at Seminole with a 16-10 record. They own seven wins in their past eight games and in the past nine days have defeated two teams - Plant and Dunedin - some thought had championship potential.

"We've all really come together, " Millan said.

Jefferson won district titles in 2004 and '05, but with basically the same group of players surprisingly slumped to a 9-15 finish last spring - one of the worst marks during Cuesta's three-decade stint as coach.

That squad wasn't as bad as its record, Cuesta said. But time and again the Dragons struggled to get the clutch hit, as evidenced by their 3-6 mark in one-run games.

The same problem reared its head early this season as Jefferson scored a combined 11 runs in its first five games.

"We, " senior pitcher Johnathon Hall said, "were shaky."

But just as Jefferson's season appeared to be spiraling out of control, its fortunes began to change.

Not long after Cuesta put his starters on notice, the team started to jell, hits started to drop and the Dragons improved on the mound and in the field.

"We started doing the little things better, " Millan said.

This season, Jefferson is 7-2 in one-run games.

One of them, a 5-4 win over top-seeded Plant in the District 10 semifinals, clinched a spot in the playoffs. In Tuesday's 3-2 victory at Dunedin, Hall slowed the high-scoring Falcons on the mound and Millan's RBI single in the sixth gave Jefferson the lead for good.

"We knew all along we had a good team, " Hall said. "We just had to come together."

The Dragons certainly did that. With an assist from the coach.