The accolades haven’t stopped for the Land O’ Lakes High Gators softball program, months after winning its first-ever fast pitch state title.
The latest award spotlights the team’s coaches.
The Gators coaching staff has been named the 2017 National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) High School Coaching Staff of the Year. The award came on July 27, and the Land O’ Lakes coaches beat out staffs from other top-tier programs in California, New Jersey, Illinois and Kansas.
The recognition went to Gators third-year head coach Mitch Wilkins and assistants Edwin Rodriguez, Janet Sciales and Vinny Guarracino. They helped to guide the varsity team to a 29-3 mark, including a 3-1 victory over Plantation American Heritage in the Class 6A title game on May 20 in Vero Beach.
The staff previously was honored by the NFCA as South Region Coaching Staff of the Year on July 12.
Wilkins said the most recent NFCA honor was “completely surprising.”
“We were astounded to even be regional winners,” Wilkins said. “We were honored to just be nominated for regionals; I didn’t expect anything after that.”
Wilkins said he is glad the national honor recognized not only him, but his trio of assistants, too.
The entire staff, he noted, is diversified, each providing a crucial role in the team’s culture and achievements.
For instance, Rodriguez, the head junior varsity coach, instills discipline through development. Sciales, a hitting specialist, serves as a female soundboard for players. And Guarracino, the first-year volunteer assistant, provides the day-to-day exuberance.
“A lot of personalities that really work out well,” Wilkins said of the staff. “We’re all team players.”
“We each have our strengths and our skills,” added Sciales, who’s coached with Wilkins for six years, dating back to their stint at Hillsborough High School. “We all have our place and we function as a well-oiled machine, and none of us try to step on the other one’s toes. None of us bring a gigantic ego to (coaching).”
Guarracino concurred, saying the staff “works like one unit.”
Part of that is the staff’s overall commitment to teaching the sport, explained Rodriguez, who has coached with Wilkins for three seasons.
“The passion that we have for coaching the girls and passing on knowledge makes us come together,” Rodriguez said. “It’s the love that we have working with the girls, because they’re receptive to (learning).”
But, the staff’s coexistence all starts with Wilkins, a retired Tampa police officer turned high school social studies teacher.
Besides the state title run—the first for any Pasco County school since 1992 — the Gators have gone a remarkable 80-9-1 in three seasons under Wilkins’ leadership, and they have firmly cemented themselves as a softball powerhouse beyond the Bay Area.
Guarracino, fresh to the coaching profession, described Wilkins as “a genius” and the main influence on starting his career.
“Coach is a little bit like a psychologist,” Guarracino explained. “He’s there for us, and he adapts his style of learning. I’m a big fan. He’s done a lot for me, and he’s been a big instructor for me.”
“Mitch knows more about ball than anybody I know, ever,” Sciales, a longtime coach herself, said. “He genuinely lives, eats and breathes softball. He thinks of things that I never even think of. He’s thinking two games in advance, three, five, seven games down the road. I’m thinking, ‘Let me just get to the next inning.’
“He’s always going to coaching seminars — anything he can do to get better.”
Sciales also noted Wilkins truly cares for each of his players.
“He’s so great with the girls, and he doesn’t yell,” Scales said. “I learned a long time ago that girls have to want to play for you. They need to want to perform for you, and he knows that. And, he’s very consistent with them, he never lies to them; he’s the fairest guy.”
She continued: “You will never find another coach that works harder to get his girls scholarships than him. He takes them to (softball) showcases, and he does that so they can get scholarships, and I don’t see a lot of other coaches doing that.”
For Wilkins, leading the Gators softball program is not about accolades or recognition.
Instead, “it’s all about the girls,” he said.
“Anything we can to do help them compete,” Wilkins said, “whether it’s helping them get a college scholarship, whether it’s helping them get prepared to move into college. Since I came aboard, every senior that’s come through the softball program and graduated (high school) has gone on to enroll in college.”
He stressed education “is first and foremost” for his players.
So, too, is “helping them become better people.”
“I just try and be that role model for them,” he said. “Show them that you don’t have get loud, and yell and scream and demean people, to get them to be motivated.”
Of course, the program’s success isn’t all about its coaches.
It’s about its deep roster, too.
“If we didn’t have the talent, then it’s almost impossible to get where we did,” Wilkins said. “What we do is try to develop their talent and do everything we can do to make sure they’re prepared for whatever situation comes up in a game.”
“You can’t win a race if you don’t have the horses,” Scales agreed. “It’s a combination of excellent athletes, great parents, and coaches being on the same page.”
Meanwhile, Gators players are appreciative for the makeup of the program’s coaching staff, and how each manages the team in practices and games.
“They’re really laid back compared to other coaches; they’re not going to yell at you,” said recent graduate Jessie McCallister, a standout centerfielder on the state title team.
“Obviously, when we do things wrong they’re going to get on us, but most of the time they’re really understanding,” said Destiny Rodriguez, a junior utility player.
“They all help us differently; they always give us good advice,” said junior ace pitcher Callie Turner. “It’s good because there’s no yelling involved in it. Like, I don’t remember a time, especially in the past few years, of them yelling. It helps us, especially as girls, when we’re not yelled at.”
Published August 23, 2017