When today’s Class 1A-Region 3 championship baseball series begins, Out-of-Door Academy coach Mike Verrill will find himself wading through familiar waters.
His team? Not so much.
The Thunder have never been as close to a state championship as they are now. Verrill has been to the brink and past it.
And even he appreciates how special this is.
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The hope is that there will be more days like today, when ODA adjusts its schedule so students and faculty can watch the Thunder play for a regional title and a trip to next week’s state finals.
But even if there are, no one will forget this one, because no one ever forgets firsts.
Verrill won’t. He was a member of three state baseball champions and three more state finalists while serving as an assistant in Maine. He also coached a softball team to a pair of state championship berths.
He’s used to this. Yet what the Thunder has done this spring has given him a jolt.
“It’s a big deal,” Verrill said.
A big deal because it’s never been done before. A big deal because when students, faculty, parents and fans make their way over the wooden footbridge that separates the school from the athletic fields, they’ll find something they’ve never seen before.
A regional baseball final. At ODA.
Everything starts somewhere. Before Palmetto, Manatee and Southeast won state football championships, they started somewhere. Before county wrestlers won state championships, they started somewhere.
Out-of-Door Academy is starting somewhere. Today.
“The program’s already been established,” said A.J. Strong, a Bradenton resident, “but (we’re) starting something people have to follow for years to come.”
Guys such as Strong, a junior, and classmates Sean Fleeman and Brody Wiseman are in an enviable position — they’ve started a legacy, and this time next year, they’ll be the ones entrusted to further it.
“Any time you go to a new school, you want to put your stamp on the program,” Verrill said, “and hopefully, the things that you do in-season and in the offseason are what’s going to help your program get better. When you see that happen and take shape ... like it is this year, it gives you a real good feeling as a head coach.”
Having been there and won, Verrill has been telling his players to keep it simple. Today is just a game, the same game it was back in February and March, when the air was cooler and the schedule was in its infancy.
But it’s also the beginning for the Thunder. The first time they’ve been this far.
Maybe there’s more to come. No one, however, will forget when it began.