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Prep baseball: Break helps Tampa Catholic rediscover focus

TAMPA - Spring and break. Those two words were a no-no inside the Tampa Catholic baseball complex. When April 15 rolled around and the Tampa Catholic student body embarked on its spring break, they did so minus the baseball team. That's about the time coach Pat Russo turned up the heat on his players. "Coach kept us on a tight curfew. He made us come here for two-a-days," Crusaders shortstop Nick Alfonso said. "We were all worried about it at first, but then we put our best foot forward and we were out there giving 100 percent every day. … That's when you really felt the karma of the team beginning to change." At that stage of the season, TC was 8-12 and in the midst of a six-game losing streak.
"Going through that and being one of the leaders with Nick, it was tough," catcher Gio Marrero said. "At one point, we were falling apart as a team and (there was) a lot of bickering, so bringing everybody back together (gave us) the chemistry we needed. We finally got it back and it's for the better." Since coming out of the break, the Crusaders (13-14) have won five of seven games and are back in a region final. They finished second in the district to Clearwater Central Catholic, coming back eight days later — after traveling to Lakeland Bishop McKeel and winning — to beat CCC, 8-2, on the road. They'll travel to Fort Myers Bishop Verot on Friday for a Class 4A region final. A Crusaders win would give them a return trip to the state semifinals in Port St. Lucie. The teams have met four times since 1997 and the series is tied, 2-2. The most recent meeting was last season in the state semifinals and the Crusaders won that, 9-7. In all, Tampa Catholic has outscored the Vikings, 25-15. "Our schedule was tough all year and we really couldn't get it rolling, but right around spring break I told them this is the stretch run we have to make and we have to do all these things," Russo said. "I think since spring break, they really have turned it up and we're where we are because of that." Turning it up meant showing up at the stadium around 9 a.m., working for three hours and then eating lunch together. Once lunch was over, practice ensued for another couple hours and then they headed home. The work paid dividends not only in the locker room and the win column. Marrero, Derek Martin and Cameron Alford raised their batting averages by at least .150 points. "I think that definitely makes us a special group," said Martin, TC's ace pitcher, who is 5-1. "Just knowing if I keep us in the ballgame, they'll have that spark with their bats and we can come out on top every time." In the past seven games, Tampa Catholic has 94 hits, 47 RBIs and eight home runs. In the past three games, Alford has nine hits, nine RBIs and two home runs. "I changed my stance because I had trouble in the middle of the season, so I was like, 'I have to change something,' " Alford said. "I changed my stance, worked on it and it's been working out for me." Packing it in could have been easy, but when your program has nine state titles, the third most in Florida high school baseball history, and 27 state tournament appearances, you just don't do that. "As a team, what is so special about us is we've found a way to get the job done when it needs to be done," Alfonso said. "When it's crucial and times are tough, we found a way, sparked something and that's probably the best thing about this team. Just persevering and finding a way to get the job done." edaniels@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7928
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