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Record speaks; players listen

By KEITH NIEBUHR

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


CRYSTAL RIVER -- Brent Hall had the players, the facilities and a state title.

It wasn't enough.

What he really wanted was a return to small-town life, and that was something his job at Jacksonville's Arlington Country Day School could not offer.

So when the opportunity arose, he left behind a cushy job for one that isn't so cushy and landed in Crystal River.

"I was excited for us to get from the big city to the small town," Hall said.

You can't go home again, but Hall came close.

He and his wife, Jenny, grew up in the small northeast Florida town of Fernandina Beach.

Last summer when they were "playing around on the 'Net" they spotted two job postings of interest in Citrus County. One was at Crystal River, which needed a baseball coach. The other was with Take Stock in Children, the company for which Jenny worked.

The couple, who have three children who range in age from 8 to 11, took three or four trips to the area and were sold.

"The whole thing was really unique," said Hall, now a teacher at Crystal River. "What we were trying to do was find a small town like the one she and I grew up with. (Crystal River) is a mirror image with Fernandina Beach."

Last season, the Pirates went 7-21. At the same time, the 34-year-old Hall led ACDS to the Class A state title. The Apaches went 26-9 and beat Miami Brito 10-1 in the finals to claim the program's first championship in Hall's only year.

In his brief time as a head coach, Hall has won at every stop.

The ex-University of Nevada at Las Vegas player became a head coach for the first time in 1997 and led Hilliard to a 21-7 finish. During the next two seasons, his teams at Jacksonville First Coast went 24-4 and 27-4, respectively.

"At first, I was like, "How could we get a guy like this to Crystal River?"' shortstop Jonathan Runnels said.

Now, Hall has the task of turning around a Crystal River program that has not won a playoff game since 1946.

He has set lofty goals. He believes a district title and playoff success are attainable this season.

"The toughest thing to teach a kid is how to win," Hall said. "One thing we try to do it put a great deal of pressure on them at practice.

"Every day, we put them in game situations, so when they get to the game, it's fun. It's like a breath of fresh air. On game night, it's their night."

Although Hall stresses having fun, he also believes in discipline. Once a week, players check in and present Hall with a report card. To play, they have to maintain an overall average of 80 or above. No exceptions.

"He doesn't like C's," junior pitcher/outfielder Ryan Starkey said.

"Everybody is more dedicated, now. There's more unity, more loyalty to the program. Everybody seems more excited to play. It's like we're one, big family."

Because Hall has won, and won big, players seem to be listening. That is one advantage of owning a state championship ring.

"I think it kind of motivates you to go over the edge a little further, because he knows what he's talking about," Runnels said.

Hall is confident in his abilities and the abilities of his players. He sees greatness for the program, and he pictures himself staying in Crystal River for a long time.

"I've already made plans to be here until my kids graduate (from high school)," Hall said.

"My wife and I both sat down before this move and said this is for us. It's where we want to finish up. We want to build some roots in this community and be contributors."

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