By Jarrett Guthrie
Hillsborough County is a hotbed for high school baseball as now nearly 90 players from this county have made it to the Major League Baseball level. Plant alum and current New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso claimed our county’s third Rookie of the Year award in 2019 (joining Doc Gooden and Jose Fernandez), while the Hall of Fame is home to area high school alums Wade Boggs (Plant), Al Lopez (Jesuit), and Tony La Russa (Jefferson). Our community is very lucky to have coaches who spend decades dedicated to our young players, but from time to time there is some transition.
We thought as part of our preseason coverage it would be good to check in on some of the new faces (and a few not so new) that have taken over head coaching positions across the county. Let’s get to know the new skippers…
Herbert Ayers, Blake
About: Retired from military service where he was stationed at MacDill, Ayers served as the ROTC instructor at Orlando’s Colonial High School for a few years. A native of Mississippi where he played high school and JUCO baseball, as well as serving as a high school baseball coach prior to his military career, Ayers has taken on both the role of ROTC instructor and was an assistant baseball coach at Blake last season before assuming the head position this season.
Outlook: Blake saw a good turnout in preseason tryouts and has narrowed the team down to 15 players, many returning from last season’s 2-18 campaign. For Ayers, the key to success for the Yellow Jackets will be disciple and commitment to getting better and those will be his focus in the first year.
Alex Barron, Robinson
About: A 2007 Robinson grad, Barron was a pitcher who played collegiately at Southeastern University and has been a teacher at Robinson for three seasons. Though he has helped out with the Knights baseball program the past few seasons, he also served as the school’s track and field coach before assuming the role as head baseball coach this season. Barron also served as an assistant baseball coach at Spoto High when his father, Gerald, was the head coach from 2014-16.
Outlook: Barron said that it is a “dream come true” to be coaching at his alma mater, and he takes over a Knights team that was 13-10 last season and had a strong finish to the season. Robinson is in an intriguing spot with the new FHSAA district realignment as the lone Hillsborough County team in its district and the only county team in Class 4A. The Knights will only play one district opponent (Wesley Chapel) in the regular season. However, what Barron has inherited is a Robinson team that has all the makeup of hard-nosed players that makes a trip to SOG City a tough challenge year-in, year-out.
Peer Review: “He already has baseball coaching experience at Spoto, but I truly think he is going to be phenomenal at Robinson. He is young, hungry, very knowledgeable and he’s already helped us with our program. That made for a really seamless transition for our program … He puts a ton of time and effort into it, thinking about it and I really think he’s going to be a great head coach. ” – former Robinson head coach Kevin McCray
Bryan Burgess, Hillsborough
About: Burgess was a three-year starting shortstop at Robinson, where he graduated in 1991. He started teaching at Hillsborough in 2004 and teaches ESE and Algebra I, while he also served as assistant baseball coach with the Terriers under previous coach Kenny White.
Outlook: Burgess’ consistency with the program, along with his retaining of most of the coaching staff from previous seasons, means the Terriers likely won’t face some seismic turmoil. The biggest changes may be, according to Burgess, from him as White had a more reserved style and the new coach admits to having a more boisterous attitude. On the field the Terriers have some nice returning pieces, a deep junior class, but this is a young team. The key will be the familiarity with Burgess and other longtime assistants and we expect that to make some untested youngsters make quick leaps this season.
Peer Review: “We were together for 13 years and although I’m sure he is going to bring his own coaching style to it, but he’s surrounded by all the guys who have been with us for years. So already there is an easy comfort level there for the team … (Burgess’) strength is his relatability to his players. He always has a big smile and kids love him, it makes players comfortable and has them ready to learn from him,” former Hillsborough head coach Kenny White said, adding with a chuckle: “When I was suspended a few times I think he was 10-1 without me, so I have no doubt he’ll be successful.”
Robert “Popeye” Cole, Chamberlain
About: A native of Meridian, Mississippi, Cole was the first African-American scholarship player to play baseball at the University of Mississippi in 1985, and spent parts of six season in the Atlanta Braves organization. He was the head baseball coach at Meridian High School from 2013-18.
Outlook: On the field, Chamberlain has struggled in recent years winning just three games in the last three seasons. The Chiefs made some leaps as a team last year and return a steady senior class led by second baseman Brennan Hyde. Though new to Hillsborough County, Cole has experience coaching at the high school level and playing at the professional level. Chamberlain has athletes and hopefully the leaps made as the last few years starts to translate to wins under its new head coach.
Peer Review: “Popeye is an unbelievable baseball man. He has a ton of high school baseball coaching experience from Meridian, Miss. and he will teach the game. He’ll instill discipline and he will make Chamberlain better this year, and he will make them better next year. He’s a guy who cares about his players and had the knowledge to share.” – Gaither head coach Nelson North, a college teammate of Cole’s at Ole Miss.
Cody Crouse, East Bay
About: The 24-year-old Crouse comes in as the youngest coach in the county, but has a history in the 813. A 2013 Bloomingdale High alum, who was selected in the 19th round of 2013 MLB first-year players draft by the New York Mets. Crouse elected to attend college playing three seasons at Florida International and his senior season at Embry-Riddle. Crouse spent last season as an assistant for the Indians and now takes the reigns in the South Shore.
Outlook: Crouse was a standout on the mound for Bloomingdale winning 17 games and posting a 1.93 ERA over four years, and the fire hasn’t dissipated for the new head coach. East Bay had a strong fall ball season and Crouse has put together a solid coaching staff looking to be competitive right away. The Indians have 15 upperclassmen and return five-of-six top hitters from last season. Last season the Indians were 4-16, and we are going out on a limb and saying that wins number will at least double this season. East Bay is in search of it’s first playoff appearance since 2001.
Peer Review: “Everything remembers about Cody, and really his brothers as well, is how well they compete. They were all bulldogs out there, Cody was always the guy you wanted on the mound, honestly the guy we wanted at the plate. In clutch situations they came through, and that is what I think he is going to bring to the East Bay program – I’ve already seen him bringing it there … They aren’t in some building mode, he’s got them thinking they are ready to win right now. They are going to surprise some people this year.” – Bloomingdale head coach Kris Wilken
Daniel Gonzalez, Jefferson
About: Though Gonzalez served as the Dragons interim coach for half of a 2019 spring season that saw the Dragons rally from an 0-6 start to finish the season with a winning record and reach the region semifinals, the “interim” tag was removed for the 2003 Jefferson alum and veteran history teacher. Gonzalez, who played catcher for the Dragons and also played collegiately at HCC and Eckerd College, has been a part of the school’s academic staff for 10 years.
Outlook: One of the most historic programs in the county, Gonzalez said that his goal for the program in his first one-plus years at the helm will be creating a new sense of accountability on the field, as well as in the classroom and in the community. Though last season saw some inconsistencies after the Dragons claimed the program’s first-ever state championship in 2018, the way the team finished the year was impressive. Gonzalez said he has added some new faces to the coaching staff, and Jefferson has a lot of talent in place and some new faces looking to reassert #TheNewJefferson to a dominant power in the county.
Peer Review: “It’s awesome see the passion and energy that Daniel has for the game of baseball and it’s great that we have another Hillsborough County product join our coaching ranks. I look forward to see his success at Jefferson High School.” – Steinbrenner head coach and FHSAA Hall of Famer John Crumbley said
Matt Stallbaumer, Riverview
About: A native of Paola, Kansas, Stallbaumer is well known as a coach in the 813 after serving as the head coach at Brandon for 15 seasons. While leading the Eagles (from 2003-18) Stallbaumer, led his team to four district titles, 10 region playoff appearances and a state runner-up finish in 2008. After spending a little over a year-and-a-half away from the high school game, he joined Riverview’s coaching staff last fall helping out then-coach Chris Cates before taking over the Sharks’ head job prior to this spring season.
Outlook: Riverview is another incredibly consistent county program, and though longtime Sharks coach Bill Leiby had stepped away prior to last season, his assistants stepped up and ran the team in its 16-8, 2019 campaign. The Sharks again faced preseason change as Cates stepped down after the Fall/Winter season. However, though this is a new start for the team, it is by no means a ground-up overhaul. The Sharks will be young this spring, but with solid leadership on the field from All-813Preps first teamer Macallister Jorgensen and buy-in of Stallbaumer’s focus on defense and small ball Riverview should see the win-loss scale tip in the positive direction.
Peer Review: “Matt is a throwback guy and he is going to stress defense and pitching. His strength is and has always been creating a ‘team.’ A lot of youth baseball has become about the individual, but Matt’s strength is getting guys to work as one. All the kids want to be hitters, but he’ll hammer pitching and defense, play for a run, and that worked incredibly well for us at Brandon. Once the Riverview players and parents see what he’s trying to do, that everything is for the team, I expect him to be incredibly successful.” – Ernie Johns, longtime area pitching coach and Stallbaumer’s assistant during his tenure at Brandon