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Seminole keeps rolling with help of new coach


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001

"Coach, why do use a designated hitter for T.J.?"

Miller smiled.

"You've obviously never seen T.J. hit, have you?"

Such good-natured rapport with his players has helped Miller successfully navigate one of the most powerful teams through one of the stormiest seasons imaginable.

The first-year Seminole coach inherited a squad teeming with senior superstars and burdened with exalted expectations and a history of playoff failure.

He has deftly guided it to an unbeaten season and the Class 5A, Region 3 title. At 8 p.m. Friday at Legends Field, Seminole plays Gonzalez Tate (28-5) in a state semifinal, the first in school history.

"He's on the same level as we are," senior third baseman Errol Blumer said of Miller. "We can joke around with him. He'll throw a few at us, and we'll throw a few at him. It's nice to have someone you can talk to like that."

Coach Rick Chapman resigned after a 25-4 season in 2000, which ended with a stunning 8-2 upset loss to Punta Gorda Charlotte in the region quarterfinal.

Miller, an assistant coach at Eckerd for five seasons, had been a high school coach in the county (at St. Petersburg Catholic, Northeast and Countryside) for much of the 1980s and early '90s. Looking to be a head coach again, he applied for the Seminole job.

"I thought it would be neat to coach Tom Kotchman's son, Casey (the Seminole first baseman)," said Miller, 46, who moved to Pinellas County the summer after he graduated high school in Virginia, in 1972, and quickly befriended the elder Kotchman. "No, I wasn't fully aware of the potential the team had at the time."

Miller quickly discovered he had thrust himself into the cockpit of a jet fighter. Seminole had major college-caliber firepower and commensurate expectations -- Baseball America rated it the nation's No. 1 team in the preseason.

Yet the new coach was immediately able to gain the respect of his players.

"We felt like we had to prove ourselves to a new person," Blumer said. "We were excited about it. He didn't know who we were, so we had to prove it to him."

The Warhawks scarcely have been tested on the field, outscoring their opponents 266-44 and winning by 10 runs or more in 14 of 29 games. However, the team -- and Miller -- has been challenged by a minefield of potential trip-ups.

In January, All-American shortstop Bryan Bass transferred in from Fort Lauderdale Westminster and beat out incumbent Phil Stillwell, a potentially divisive situation.

After 10 games, Bass was ruled ineligible due to a residency violation and Seminole forfeited its first 10 games. Shortly thereafter, an appeal to regain the wins and Bass' eligibility was denied.

Two-thirds of the way through the season, leading hitter and star pitcher Ryan Dixon had surgery for a torn labrum and was lost for the year. Plus, second baseman Jon Riggleman has missed most of the season with a hamstring injury.

But nothing has thwarted the Warhawks. Players such as Kotchman, Baseball America's preseason No. 1-rated high school player, Large, pitcher-outfielder John Killalea, catcher Bobby Wilson, Blumer, Stillwell and outfielders Jon Skorupski and Donyelle Williams -- all seniors -- have more than picked up the slack.

"I watch these kids day in and day out, and sometimes, I just sit back and say, "This is pretty crazy,"' Miller said. "There have been many times when there could have been a letdown, but it hasn't happened. They pick each other up.

"To go through what these guys have gone through (and be undefeated), it's incredible."

And by the way, Miller recently stopped using a designated hitter for Large, and he has even let Large DH when he's not pitching. Large has rewarded the coach with key hits in the region semifinal and final.

"He's a great guy," Blumer said. "He makes you play real good baseball."

"Why don't you ever bat for yourself?" a reporter asked Seminole star right-hander T.J. Large after he had pitched the Warhawks to a midseason victory.

"I don't know," Large said, looking around for Seminole coach Scott Miller. "Why don't you ask coach what you just asked me?"

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